President Trump presents a pen after signing the HBCU executive order in the Oval Office. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that moves a federal initiative supporting historically black colleges and universities directly into the White House, a move depicted as an effort to give the schools more clout within the government.

HBCU leaders said they were cautiously optimistic about the shift. They are eager for the government to raise its investment in their schools but wary of promises devoid of action.

“The proof of the pudding is in the taste, and I’m not going to get excited until we see some real numbers,” said David Wilson, president of Morgan State University in Maryland.

Trump’s action directs the White House Initiative on HBCUs to operate from the White House instead of the Education Department. The initiative, begun under President Jimmy Carter, assists colleges in accessing federally sponsored programs, including government research projects and student aid. Some view the move as a signal that the more than 100 historically black schools are a priority for the administration, but others said that without monetary support, it is purely symbolic.

(Reuters)

“If we relocate that office and support to HBCUs goes down or stays the same, then it will have meant nothing,” said John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the departing president of Morehouse College, who led the initiative during President Barack Obama’s first term. “We want to give the administration a chance, so we’re not exactly cynical, but nor are we super-confident that the right things are going to happen.”

Absent from the order was any commitment of federal dollars to bolster support for HBCUs, although it does call on the executive director of the initiative to identify ways to increase the capacity of such schools to compete for grants and contracts.

According to a recent report, HBCUs received $4.7 billion in federal financial assistance from some 28 federal departments in 2013. The schools received $3 billion more in federal funding in Obama’s first six years in office, than in George W. Bush’s last six years — setting a high benchmark for this administration.

On Tuesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pledged solidarity with HBCUs in a speech to several university leaders. “And in President Donald Trump, and this administration, you have a strong partner in fulfilling your mission,” she told them.

The day before, DeVos drew criticism for a prepared statement about HBCUs in which she asserted that the colleges and universities “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”

Many HBCU advocates said that the statement on Monday glossed over the historical context that gave rise to the schools: Jim Crow laws that for generations enforced racial segregation in the South, barring black students from attending the most prestigious institutions.

But HBCU leaders gathered in Washington sought to focus on funding.

(Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

On Monday, they asked administration officials for a $25 billion federal investment for scholarships, technology and facilities. They also pressed for full-time students who qualify for Pell grants to receive them three semesters a year instead of two, according to several presidents in attendance. Morgan’s Wilson said he wants the White House to build up historically black research universities that are often shut out of federal contracts.

“The federal government has purposefully invested billions of dollars in making [historically white research universities] stronger at the neglect of institutions that have been in the space even longer,” Wilson said. “Why I participated in the meeting was to present a case for why it is critically important for the federal government to correct the wrong.”

Some were disappointed that an hour-long listening session they were promised lasted only about 15 minutes because they were shuttled off to the Oval Office to meet Trump.

Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, said he’ll reserve judgment until he sees the president’s budget. He said he worries whether possible cuts in domestic spending would jeopardize funding for programs that help HBCU students.

“I’m just trying to figure out the math. How do you pay for all of this? Something is going to be cut, we know that, so where will the cuts come from?” Kimbrough said.

As it stands, historically black colleges receive roughly $320 million a year in federal funding to strengthen their operations, according to Education Department data. The government also provides Howard University in the District about $222 million in annual appropriations.

“Historically our country discriminated and oppressed African Americans, and HBCUs throughout history were not funded in any equitable way,” said Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions. “The federal government gives funding to make up for past discrimination and provide resources to institutions that are deeply tuition-driven and also educate many low-income students.”

Historically black schools educated nearly 300,000 students in 2014, the latest figure available from the National Center for Education Statistics. Education Department data shows that three-quarters of all doctorates awarded to African Americans, three-quarters of all black officers in the U.S. military and 80 percent of black federal judges earned an undergraduate degree at historically black schools.