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
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,
Strickland (Wiley College)
President William Harvey
Kimbrough (Dillard University)
President David Beckley
President Beverly Wade
Hogan (Tougaloo College)
President Jimmy Jenkins
Sr. (Livingston College)
President Edison Jackson
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
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
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
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
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
One of those students who
has benefited from choice is with us today, my friend Denisha Merriweather.
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
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
Our nation needs the
ingenuity and energy found in Fab Labs to be cultivated in communities across
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
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
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