U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' Prepared Remarks at HBCU Congressional Luncheon in Washington, D.C.

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US Department of Education

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Feb. 28, 2017

CONTACT:
Press Office, (202) 401-1576 or press@ed.gov

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' Prepared Remarks at HBCU Congressional Luncheon in Washington, D.C.

Thank you, Chairman Walker for that introduction, and my sincere thanks to you and to Sen. Scott for convening this important gathering. 

I know you’re both champions of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs] you represent, from North Carolina A&T State University to South Carolina’s Claflin University. 

I’m also honored to join leaders of some of America’s finest institutions of higher learning and want to begin by recognizing some of the senior leaders in the HBCU community, including:

President Haywood Strickland (Wiley College)
President William Harvey (Hampton University)
President Walter Kimbrough (Dillard University)
President David Beckley (Rust College)
President Beverly Wade Hogan (Tougaloo College)
President Jimmy Jenkins Sr. (Livingston College)

And

President Edison Jackson (Bethune-Cookman University)

It was an honor to be with so many of you yesterday at the White House. As I mentioned then, I look forward to partnering with you, to working alongside you, and to always having an open door policy to hear your concerns, needs and ideas as we work together to serve students throughout the country.

HBCUs are such an important piece of the fabric of American history – one that encompasses some of our nation’s greatest leaders, talented artists, gifted athletes and patriotic citizens.

One such leader who inspires me is less well known than others in the HBCU legacy, but no less important. I’m talking about Mary McLeod Bethune, the “First Lady of the Struggle” of civil rights.

Born to parents who knew the horrors of slavery, Mary was the only member of her family to attend school. And when she came home each night, she taught her siblings everything she had learned. She went from that one room school house to founding a university that today bears her name.

Recognizing that the traditional school systemically failed to provide African Americans access to a quality education -- or, sadly, more often to any education at all -- Mary refused to accept the status quo.

In 1904, with nothing more than $1.50 in her pocket and a vision and determination in her soul, Mary built a school from scratch to serve African-American children.

During her remarkable 79 years on this earth, Mary Bethune fought for one singular and indispensable goal: To provide African-American children access to a quality education.

Today, Bethune-Cookman University in Florida remains a thriving member of the HBCU community and continues to stand as a legacy to Mary’s commitment to students.

This is a legacy all of you share, and I’m honored to join you as a partner in our mutual commitment to ensuring every student access to a world-class education.

On my second day on the job as Secretary of Education, I visited Howard University to meet with Dr. Wayne Fredrick and student leaders.

We had a very constructive conversation, and I was impressed by the university’s plans to implement a program to provide four years of undergraduate college education at the cost of three. But what struck me most from our conversation was the students’ pride in being a part of a school that cares so deeply about their personal growth and long-term trajectory.

Perhaps this is what makes all of your missions so unique.

HBCUs have always been more than simply institutions of higher learning. You have long represented a challenge to the status quo, starting by providing a necessary opportunity to African Americans following the Civil War.

You’ve grown to become world-class incubators of talent, producing leaders including Justice Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, Cab Calloway, Langston Hughes and Oprah Winfrey, among others famous and not-so famous.

Today, your institutions are responsible for graduating the majority of African-American teachers, doctors, judges, engineers and other technological professionals.

And in President Donald Trump, and this Administration, you have a strong partner in fulfilling your mission.

That’s why later this afternoon, the President will sign an executive order that elevates the White House Initiative on HBCUs to a new home, a higher calling and a deeper mission.

Together, I am certain we can do more than just provide degrees to the students on your campuses; we can partner to transform communities.

One of the reasons I accepted the President’s offer to serve, is my longstanding commitment to fighting for equal educational opportunity.

Education is a fundamental right afforded to every child in this country. Yet, sadly, not all students have equal access to a quality education.

The inequities in our education system are, to me, among the most glaring problems we as a nation must solve. As you know, education inequality disproportionately harms minority students.

Just over half of African-American high school students have access to the full range of high-level math and science courses that are gateways to college.

This reality is troubling, and it is wholly unacceptable. But it’s also what motivates us, and it is part of the reason the President intends to deliver on his promise to help those who have long been forgotten by offering more opportunity to low-income families whose children deserve access to a high-quality education.

One of those students who has benefited from choice is with us today, my friend Denisha Merriweather.

(Recognizing Denisha)

Denisha’s story is one of struggle, difficulty and triumph: Raised by a single mother in poverty, she moved from one school to another. Failed the third grade, not once but twice.

Denisha was on the path to becoming another statistic, and following her mother and brother, who both dropped out of high school.

But her godmother intervened, and with the assistance of a school choice program in Florida, Denisha was given a chance to attend a school that better met her needs.

Today, she’s not only the first in her family to graduate high school, she’s graduated college. And this May, she’ll graduate from her master’s program.

This is a model we must follow – to provide every child an opportunity to attend a quality school.

Bucking that status quo, and providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of HBCUs.

But your history was born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.

HBCUs remain at the forefront of opening doors that had previously been closed to so many. You made higher education accessible to students who otherwise would have been denied the opportunity.

America must provide the opportunity for a high-quality education to every child -- where they live. There should be no excuses based upon ZIP code or family income.

We need more good schools. We need more good teachers. And no child should be denied the opportunity to enter a great school. Not one.

Today, HBCUs help students of all races find their life’s calling and achieve their dreams. You help more students aspire to and finish college, all at a reasonable cost. 

And your impact is especially noteworthy in fields that contribute most to growing our economy and strengthening our communities, such as science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM subjects.  In fact, HBCUs produce about a quarter of all African-American students with bachelor's degrees in STEM fields.

Here’s just one example: In 2015, North Carolina Central University partnered with M.I.T. to open a Fabrication Laboratory, or Fab Lab, for students and faculty in the NCCU’s College of Arts and Sciences. The facility is also open to the local community. Found in growing numbers across the country, Fab Labs are state-of-the art “Maker Spaces” where people go to “create, play and invent.” Fab Labs, like all your programs, are student-centric solutions that empower students to take ownership of their learning, and enable entrepreneurs of all ages to shape the next big idea.

Our nation needs the ingenuity and energy found in Fab Labs to be cultivated in communities across the country.

Under my leadership, the Department of Education will continue working closely with you to help identify evolving needs, increase capacity, and attract research dollars. We will also work closely with you to launch new initiatives that meet the needs of today’s students.

And I promise you this: I will do my utmost to make sure more students reach your campuses truly ready for the opportunities you offer. Remediation of students in their college careers -- a far too common occurrence across this country -- is an admission that we, as a nation, have failed a student. It’s a failure that is unacceptable.

We will never deny, cover-up, or feign indifference to the system failing students, and that includes students who have achieved at the level set out for them, only to find that the expectations for them were set too low. We will call it out. We will engage with an eye toward solutions. And we will fix it.                                                                         

I know extending the promise of freedom and helping students reach their God-given potential is work America’s HBCUs have loved and labored at for 180 years. It’s a principle that’s encapsulated in a simple, yet profound phrase: “By one’s own toil, effort, courage.”  I know President Felton is familiar with that phrase, but for the rest of us, that is the motto of Wilberforce University in Ohio, the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans in the United States.

Those six words outline a clear challenge and mission, not just for Wilberforce students, but for each of us here today, and anyone who is dedicated to the work of educating America’s students. It’s my sincere hope that it is a challenge we will all live up to, as together, we continue and strengthen the noble work in which you are engaged: “By one’s own toil, effort, courage.”

Together, we will ensure the promise and opportunity of a robust and inclusive education is extended to every student in every neighborhood across America.

Together, we will make higher education not only an achievable goal, but a more affordable one.

Together, we will work harder so students learn and thrive in safe environments; encounter and engage in rigorous debate; and grow and challenge themselves-so that a generation from now they look back with pride on the opportunity and embrace the options they’ve created for themselves and their loved ones.

So in closing, today, I ask that you join me in ensuring education remains the engine to transform lives and improve communities.

Let us allow yesterday’s discussion and today’s remarks to serve as a starting point of an ongoing dialogue.

President Edison Jackson has already agreed to continue this important conversation at Bethune-Cookman University and welcome his invitation.

I look forward to continuing our conversation, to solving problems and to being an energetic advocate for your students – and for every student.

Again, thank you again for the opportunity to join you for this celebration and thank you for serving America’s students.

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