Kamala Harris’s STEM-focused plan sparks debate about what HBCUs really need

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) recently became the latest presidential candidate to put forth a plan for bolstering historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs). Focused primarily on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, her $60 billion proposal quickly sparked debate about the benefits and risks of focusing narrowly on those careers at a time when HBCUs are struggling with broader infrastructure and financial aid needs, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

$60 billion for STEM programs and infrastructure

Harris’s plan seeks to increase Black Americans’ participation in lucrative STEM fields by directing $60 billion to create “hubs of STEM research and education” at MSIs, and especially HBCUs, which graduate nearly one-fourth of Black Americans who have bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering. According to The Chronicle, Washington, D.C.-based Howard University alone “produces more black graduates who go on to earn a doctorate in a STEM field than Cornell, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford combined.”

Yet, “HBCUs remain historically under-resourced,” said Harris, who is a graduate of Howard University and the only Democratic presidential candidate who attended an HBCU. To narrow that gap, Harris would:

  • Create a $10 billion infrastructure grant program to help HBCUs and MSIs build STEM classrooms, labs, and facilities;
  • Establish a $50 billion fund to support STEM-focused scholarships, fellowships, and internships; institutional and curricular supports; research equipment; and training for faculty, fellows, and lab technicians;
  • Direct the Pentagon—and other federal research and grantmaking agencies—to offer more opportunities to HBCUs;
  • Provide $2.5 billion (through a previously released plan for increasing teacher pay) to HBCU programs that train Black teachers; and
  • Offer student loan debt forgiveness of up to $20,000 for Pell grant recipients who start a business that operates for at least three years in disadvantaged communities.

Too STEM-focused for some HBCUs?

Some HBCU leaders have lauded Harris’s plan as recognizing HBCUs’ disproportionate role in training black STEM graduates. “These institutions have been overproducing the top black talent in this country for over a century and a half on a shoestring budget, said Morgan State University David Wilson, adding that “if we want to be serious about turning out innovators and innovators of color, we can’t do that if there is not an appropriate investment in the institutions that are carrying the heaviest load.”

However, some HBCU presidents have reservations about Harris’s proposal, The Chronicle notes. Not all HBCUs are research universities vying for federal grants and looking to compete with elite institutions; many are struggling instead to maintain infrastructure and provide sufficient financial aid for low-income students. For most students at smaller, private HBCUs, “their most pressing concern is, Can I remain in school?” said Kevin D. Rome, president of Fisk University, an HBCU with just 664 undergraduate students.

Jarrett Carter, founding editor of HBCU Digest, meanwhile, advocates for a less prescriptive approach to supporting HBCUs. He recommends allowing individual schools to determine where funds are most needed and preparing graduates for the workforce demands of their surrounding local and state economies.

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