president-barack-obama_web.jpgPresident Barack Obama this week signed a bill that will make $1 billion available to historically black colleges and universities.

By signing the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010, the president ensured that the institutions of higher learning will receive the money over the next 10 years.

The president joined Jill Biden – Vice President Joe Biden’s wife – on Tuesday, March 30 at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Va. just outside of Washington, D.C., for the historic bill signing. Biden teaches English at the school.

The bill is part of a package that includes fixes to Obama’s health care overhaul. Right now, it is unclear how much money each learning institution will receive under the program.

“With this bill, and other steps we’ve pursued over the last year, we are finally undertaking meaningful reform in our higher education system” Obama said. “By cutting out the middle man, we’ll save American taxpayers $68 billion in the coming years … That's real money – real savings that we'll reinvest to help improve the quality of higher education and make it more affordable.”

The $68 billion taxpayer savings that the president referenced will result from the elimination of fees paid to private banks that serve as intermediaries in providing loans to college students, essentially making the federal government the direct lender of federal student loans.

The projected savings will be used to expand the Pell Grant program, which provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain post-baccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education.

“By 2017 we expect to raise the maximum Pell award to $6,000; and by the academic year 2020-2021, we expect more than 820,000 official Pell grant awards to have been made because of the passage of this bill.  200,000 projected to go to African Americans,” said Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

To emphasize the impact that the new law will have on the country’s HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), Barnes and John S. Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, participated in a conference call with the media on Tuesday, March 30.

“It should be pretty clear by now that President Obama has a very strong appreciation for the work being done by the nation’s HBCUs, [which] have all provided a road to prosperity for students who have historically lacked access to other institutions of higher learning,” Wilson said.

Florida is home to four HBCUs: Florida Memorial University (FMU) in Miami Gardens, Bethune-Cookman University (BCU) in Daytona Beach, Edward Waters College in Jacksonville and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee.

In March, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan appointed BCU President Trudie Kibbe Reed to the HBCU Capital Funding Advisory Board. 

FMU Interim President Sandra T. Thompson said about the new law, “The funding will enhance our ability to strengthen the university’s academic programs and resources. It will also support the university’s administrative, fundraising, technology and financial management capacity.”

James Ammons, president of FAMU, applauded the president’s actions.

“More than 85 percent of our students receive need-based financial aid, and the programs that President Obama has created could lessen the financial burden our students face when attending college,” Ammons said.

In addition to boosting funding to black institutions of higher learning, other minorities also benefit.

“There’s funding for other minority serving institutions, including Hispanic serving, Asian American, and  Native American Pacific Islander serving institutions and also Alaskan natives and Native Hawaiian institutions,” Wilson explained.

The new law also offers relief to college graduates struggling to repay their college loans.

Barnes said that the law will allow the federal government to cap a graduate’s annual student loan repayment to about 10 percent of his or her income. For graduates who enter careers in public service, like teachers or police officers, and who are in good standing with their loan payments, “that person will have their debt forgiven after 10 years,” Barnes explained.

Critics of the new law say it will result in the loss of jobs in the private lending sector.

“Buried deep within the legislation signed today is a dramatic overhaul of the way Americans pay for college,” U.S Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee's Senior Republican, said in a statement responding to the new law.  “By replacing a popular student loan model with yet another one-size-fits-all government bureaucracy, the bill sacrifices innovation and competition in student financial assistance while eliminating an estimated 30,000 jobs.”

Barnes said the president is steadfast in his goal of the giving the United States the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

“The president both as Senator Obama, and candidate Obama, and now as President Obama, understands the importance of education in the lives of American people and how that’s important to the long-term prosperity of the nation,” Barnes said.

Photo: President Barack Obama