Coons, Blunt Rochester introduce FLIGHT Act to bring new programs to HBCUs

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, and Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Delaware, and Anthony Brown, D-Maryland, on June 15 led the introduction of legislation to provide new resources for Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students at historically black colleges and universities and minority institutions, like Delaware State University.

The bill was also introduced by Sens. Tom Carper, D-Delaware; Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina; and Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, and Rep. Greg Murphy, R-North Carolina.

The lawmakers hope to include the Fostering Leadership and Inclusion by Growing HBCU Training Act, in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the Department of Defense.

The FLIGHT Act aims to expand diversity in the military by increasing opportunities at U.S. HBCUs. According to a press release from Coons’ office, people of color are underrepresented in American military leadership — particularly at higher ranks and in high-investment, training-intensive specialties like aviation, according. As a whole, the Air Force is almost 20% African-American. But that diversity is deceptive: only 1.7% of Air Force pilots, and less than 3% of civilian pilots are Black. Similar asymmetries affect other branches of the Armed Forces.

Aspiring military aviators can significantly improve their career prospects with undergraduate pilot training, but ROTC scholarships do not cover flight training costs. This makes it more difficult for low-income students to become pilots. The FLIGHT Act addresses this by establishing two new programs.

The goals of the FLIGHT Act include:

— Lowering the barriers to ROTC participation for students at HBCUs and minority institutions. Many ROTC students at HBCUs must commute to host institutions for classes — often over long distances. This bill would provide funding and resources to mitigate these barriers, in part by encouraging partnerships between the institutions and nearby military bases.

— Supplementing flight training costs for ROTC members enrolled at HBCUs. While the funds appropriated by the FLIGHT Act can be used at commercial flight schools, priority is given to students who would also receive their flight training at HBCUs. This program also includes the students participating in the Coast Guard’s College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative program.

Delaware State University’s Michael Casson, dean of the College of Business, said: "Any increased focus and resourcing for ROTC Aviation Program participants at HBCUs like Delaware State University has the potential to return significant benefits to the female and minority success rates of pilot candidates, resulting in greater diversity among military pilots.” Casson noted that cultural competency among instructors often undermines flight instruction of female and minority candidates, citing a 2018 RAND study. “The necessary cultural competency of flight instructors at HBCUs or Minority-Serving Institutions is rated significantly higher than those providing the same instruction at US Air Force bases.” He concluded: “Aviation programs at HBCUs and Minority-Serving Institutions represent a strong, recommended investment in more successfully diversifying the cadre of military pilots by successfully retaining female and minority candidates. Delaware State University's experience over the last thirty years directly supports this conclusion, both qualitatively and quantitatively, and we strongly support the assignment of greater resources to the programs best able to use them in a positive manner."

The bill text is available at https://bit.ly/2Y2ypU4.