ICYMI: As HBCU Funding Garners More Attention, Experts Hope For Lasting Change

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Advocates, alumni, journalists, experts, and more have been ringing alarm bells for decades about the critical underfunding of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). And while there have been recent efforts at both the state and federal levels to increase funding, experts say more work still needs to be done.

Kayla Elliott, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, said there are many ways that HBCUs have been underfunded, such as states giving HBCUs a lower rate of per-student funding, non-HBCUs duplicating HBCU programs and attracting students who may otherwise attend an HBCU, states giving non-HBCUs unfair advantages in grants or other opportunities, and more.

“HBCUs have absolutely faced decades, and for some over a century, of underfunding from both federal and state governments,” Elliott said. “It matters who makes decisions, and unfortunately, there are not enough Black folks, HBCU graduates, or HBCU advocates in decision-making positions at the state level whether that's in the education department, education and workforce committees, or the governor’s office.”

The historic underfunding of HBCUs has led to a variety of issues, including neglected infrastructures and faculty salaries that are not on par with those across the nation, according to Marybeth Gasman, the executive director of the Rutgers University Center for Minority Serving Institutions and expert on HBCUs. Additionally, some HBCUs are not able to offer the same kinds of financial aid packages to prospective students that other institutions are able to offer because they don't have as much institutional funding, she notes. 

The result is that students attending HBCUs are more likely to use federal loans to finance their college studies than their peers, according to a 2016 report from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). The report found that 80% of HBCU students took out federal student loans, compared with 55% of non-HBCU students. A main reason for the higher borrowing is because HBCUs have relatively small endowments, which hinders their ability to provide institutional grants to students, the report states.

“All of these kinds of things, because of that historic underfunding, put HBCUs in a position where they're doing everything they can to be competitive, but it's almost like someone's pulling them back at the same time because that investment wasn't there,” Gasman said. 

And while the Biden administration has ramped up efforts to rightsize investments in HBCUs, it hasn’t been enough to level the playing field, Gasman said. 

“It's getting better and we're seeing a lot of movement, but it takes a long time for people to make up for the vast inequities that HBCUs have had to suffer,” she said 

Still, chronic underfunding coupled with HBCUs’ ability to persevere has created a mentality that these institutions will continue to do more with less — and that they’re okay with that status quo, according to Nadrea Njoku, director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at UNCF.

“I think HBCUs are incredibly innovative in the sense that they know how to make things stretch,” Njoku said. “They know how to make funds stretch, but our students are not served at the optimal levels when we have to stretch ourselves. Although we do it very well, we do a disservice to the students when we have to stretch resources to give them half or a quarter of what other students have in other institutions.”

Despite these challenges, HBCUs have served as an “incomparable” engine for social mobility for Black students and their families, said Natasha McClendon, senior research associate at the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, who pointed to a 2019 report from UNCF that analyzed HBCU enrollment and graduation. According to that report, even though HBCUs make up 9% of the four-year institutions, they enrolled, on average, 24% of all Black undergraduates pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a college or university, and awarded, on average, 26% of all Black bachelor’s degrees in 2016.  

“They're able to do more with less, but imagine how much they could do if they were funded the way they should be,” McClendon said.

Last year, an investigation from Forbes found that the nation’s 18 public land-grant HBCUs have been underfunded by at least $12.8 billion between 1987 and 2020. The Forbes investigation compared per-pupil state funding of predominantly white land-grant institutions with their counterpart HBCUs and calculated if HBCUs had been funded equivalently, what amount they would have received in total funding, adjusted for inflation.

Specifically, the investigation found North Carolina A&T State University, the nation’s largest HBCU by enrollment, was underfunded by over $2.7 billion since 1987, followed by Florida A&M University, and Tennessee State University, which were each underfunded by over $1.9 billion. The investigation notes that the “single worst instance of annual underfunding” for any institution was just three years ago in 2020, when the North Carolina legislature appropriated North Carolina A&T $95 million, which is $8,200 less per student than the $16,400 per student it gave to North Carolina State University, located about an hour east in Greensboro. 

Adam Harris, a staff writer for The Atlantic and author of “The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal—and How to Set Them Right,” examines in his book the long history of underfunding at HBCUs and calls on states to do an individual account of what reparations are owed to those institutions. For example, he notes how the Morrill Act of 1862, which was meant to provide grants of land for states to create colleges to “benefit the agricultural and mechanical arts,” was misused by state lawmakers so it wouldn’t apply to HBCUs. 

And just two years ago, Tennessee’s Office of Legislative Budget Analysis released a report detailing how the state owes Tennessee State University between $151 million and $544 million in land-grant funding. According to the report, Tennessee State was supposed to receive funds matching its federal land grant, but the state allocated no land-grant funds to the institution between 1957 and 2007. 

Gasman adds that while HBCUs have been on the radar of both political parties, she thinks the Biden administration has really “pushed HBCUs to the forefront,” with additional funding worked into the federal budget, different federal departments creating opportunities and providing funding for HBCUs, and developing partnerships with private philanthropists to build upon the federal funds for HBCUs. 

In 2021, for example, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to reestablish the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity Through HBCUs. That executive order requires federal agencies to submit plans by February 1 of each year describing their efforts to increase HBCU access to federal programs and initiatives, particularly in areas of research and development.

When it comes to funding, Biden’s American Rescue Plan and other pandemic relief provided nearly $3.7 billion in relief funding to HBCUs in 2021, according to the White House. Additionally, in July and August 2021, the Department of Education (ED) awarded more than $500 million in grant funding to HBCUs for academic capacity-building and fiscal stability. ED has discharged approximately $1.6 billion of debt from loans provided to HBCUs for capital improvements through its HBCU Capital Financing Program.  

Melanie Carter, associate provost and director of the Center for HBCU Research, Leadership, and Policy at Howard University, said recently there’s been a national discourse over HBCUs in ways there haven’t been before. She notes that recent research has illuminated the issues of HBCU underfunding to the general public. 

“[There’s] a realization that some action should be taken to correct — or to at least address — the wrongs and the decisions to not fund Black colleges, despite the fact that Black citizens are paying taxes and providing all kinds of support to other institutions,” Carter said. “I don't know if it's a movement, but I think there's a realization that something has to be done to address these historical inequities.”

Part of the renewed interest in HBCUs in both the public and private sectors, Gasman said, could have been fueled by the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, prompting organizations to realize that they need to recruit a diverse workforce, prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, and support Black people.

“I'm glad that HBCUs are being supported,” Gasman said. “And I just hope that people continue to value Black lives, because as my friend, David Wilson, the president of Morgan State University, says, ‘HBCUs are places where Black lives have always mattered. It's not something new or trendy.’”

And although HBCUs are receiving more attention than previous years, the institutions have always been supported and celebrated by alumni of HBCUs and the Black community, according to Elliott of The Education Trust. 

“We have always valued our own institutions, we have always made investments, we have always made sacrifices for our own institutions,” Elliott said. “There is a growing movement of support outside of the community, a growing spotlight in the media, more stories like this one, and those are all great changes. But what I know to be true is that HBCU alumni and our surrounding communities have always supported HBCUs in dollars, in love, and in respect.”

She adds that for HBCUs to receive the support they deserve, it will take increased federal funding, such as the 2022 College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success competitive grant program, increase private investments, relationships with with corporate donors, public and private partnerships, and states investigating their role in HBCU underfunding, like Tennessee. 

Carter adds that HBCUs have endured much throughout their existence in the U.S. since 1837 and she’s not concerned with their survival, but wants to make sure that this moment creates concrete change to how HBCUs are funded. 

“I want to make sure that this moment … where there's a lot of potential HBCUs, funding, and support, that we also make sure that we don't make the mistakes we've made in the past,” Carter said. “And that we don't think that we can provide one-time funding opportunities, do things that really just scratched the surface, or that are more ornamental than anything else. Rather, we want to look at some core approaches, strategies, or efforts that will really help HBCUs not only now, but as we move to the 22nd century.”


Publication Date: 2/28/2023

Kyndall J | 3/1/2023 11:38:11 AM

I went to an HBCU. It was one of the best experiences of my life. As an Alumni of Delaware State University, I will do my best to be a part of the committee to help anyway i can possible.

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