WILMINGTON, Del. – U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) and U.S. Representatives Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) and Anthony Brown (D-Md.) led the introduction of legislation to provide new resources for Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and minority institutions like Delaware State University. The bill was also introduced by Senators Tom Carper (D-Del.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Representative Greg Murphy, M.D. (R-N.C.). The lawmakers hope to include the FLIGHT Act, or the Fostering Leadership and Inclusion by Growing HBCU Training Act, in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which funds the Department of Defense.

The FLIGHT Act aims to expand diversity in the military by increasing opportunities at our nation’s HBCUs. People of color are underrepresented in American military leadership—particularly at higher ranks and in high-investment, training-intensive specialties like aviation. 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 Actaddresses 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.

“Now more than ever, we are reminded how vital it is that our leaders, our guardians, and our role models reflect the diversity of America itself,” said Senator Coons. “Our servicemembers come from all walks of life, but people of color remain underrepresented at the military’s highest levels. This undermines both our military readiness and our society as a whole. Today’s military aviators will become tomorrow’s best-trained commercial pilots. Our current officers in uniform will become our policy experts, our CEOs, and often our political leaders. The FLIGHT Act is just one of many steps we must take to ensure that those who lead our country also fully represent it.” 

“We must do more to support the best and brightest that want to answer the call to serve as a military pilot,” said Representative Blunt Rochester. “For some, barriers like distance from ROTC units or financial challenges stymie their efforts to serve in the military.  Ultimately, we must ensure those afforded the opportunity to serve reflect the racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity of the country. That’s why I am proud to lead with my colleagues in the House and Senate in the introduction of the FLIGHT Act. The FLIGHT Act will give students at historically black colleges and universities like Delaware State University seeking to be military pilots the ability to train to be an officer and afford the flight training programs needed to fly some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. Bills like this give all Americans the chance to serve their country in the capacity we need to safeguarding our national security.”

"Our military brings together brave men and women from across this nation to serve,”said Representative Brown. “Those leading our service members should reflect the power of this diversity. Minority groups are severely underrepresented in our officer corps, and even more so among military pilots and other critical units. This bill taps into the talent present at our HBCUs and other minority institutions by reducing barriers to participation in ROTC, creating partnerships between those schools and neighboring military installations and encouraging the pursuit of flight training prior to accession to train the next generation of pilots."

“The formation of a more perfect union is an ideal that we must constantly strive to meet,” said Senator Carper. “As we as a nation continue to take important steps in promoting equality, we cannot overstate the importance of removing the barriers to serving in a leadership role in our military. As a former ROTC student who went on to serve as a naval flight officer, I understand the positive impacts that ROTC and aviation training, in particular, have on our nation. Today, the students at Delaware State University and at HBCUs across our country have a similar opportunity, and, with the FLIGHT Act, they’ll have a greater chance to succeed and serve in leadership roles in the military and in their civilian careers, as well. I want to thank Senator Coons and Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester for leading the charge and introducing this bill, and I look forward to continue working to make sure that students who are eager to take flight and serve their nation will reap the benefits.”

Delaware State University’s Michael Casson, Ph.D., 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 FLIGHT Act recognizes America’s diversity and pluralism as key components of her competitive edge,” said Lezli Baskerville, President & CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. “America cannot effectively defend the Nation’s security or its citizenry without a strong, diverse, and just military. If the leadership corps in the military does not fully reflect the diversity of those on the front lines of the enlisted ranks, and those across America, our military and our Nation will not thrive, and the world will not be at peace. The FLIGHT Act will better position HBCUs to help America to be her better self.”

“Any student that has a dream to serve in the United States Armed Forces should be able to carry out that dream and have every opportunity and resource available to them to be successful regardless of where they attend college, this is especially true for our students at our nation’s HBCUs. Because minorities are underrepresented in American military leadership, ROTC serves as a gateway to that level of leadership, and HBCU students should have easier access to the opportunity to not only serve in our military but to lead. UNCF is happy to endorse the Fostering Leadership and Inclusion by Growing HBCU Training (FLIGHT) Act and urges Congress to consider this bill in the next iteration of the National Defense Authorization Act,” said Dr. Michael L. Lomax, President and CEO, UNCF (United Negro College Fund, Inc.).

The bill text is available here.

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