Book Review: "The State Must Provide: The Definitive History of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education"

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

In February 2019, more than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic dominated nearly every operational discussion on campuses, another issue all too briefly held the attention of the higher education community: the underfunding of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Bennett College, an HBCU in North Carolina, was in danger of losing its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools due to financial instability. Bennett stood in jeopardy of losing access to federal financial aid and its ability to grant recognized degrees to students, and risked closing its doors altogether. Other HBCUs and institutions, such as Morehouse, Spelman, and High Point University, joined a social media crusade to raise money to save Bennett College. The school ultimately retained its accreditation, but only after lawsuits, appeals, and raising over $8 million.

Samantha HicksReviewed by Samantha Hicks, assistant vice president of financial aid and scholarships at Coastal Carolina University

Unfortunately, the financial instability of Bennett College is not an isolated event. Historically, HBCUs have been underfunded privately and publicly for decades, despite educating “80 percent of Black judges, 50 percent of Black lawyers and doctors, and 25 percent of Black science, technology, math, and engineering graduates” (p. 6). This inequity is the focus of The State Must Provide: The Definitive History of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education by Adam Harris. Harris, a writer at The Atlantic, gives a detailed historical narrative of the history of America’s Black colleges and universities and the numerous efforts by all-white universities and state lawmakers to maintain this inequity. As a white financial aid administrator at a predominantly white state-funded institution in the South, I found this book to be uncomfortable and challenging in all the right ways.

Reading this book is like sitting down with a great storyteller who can enthrall listeners by vividly sharing tragedies and victories. The book is full of historical and personal accounts and is a great read for any higher education or education history buff. More importantly, though, Harris delves into the origins of racial inequity in higher education. He begins the book with the story of a 19th-century friendship between John Fee, an abolitionist minister, and Cassius Clay, the son of a wealthy Kentucky slaveholder. Their friendship, tested by war and family, ultimately led to the formation of the first integrated college in the southern United States, Berea College.

Harris uses this narrative to introduce readers to Berea College and Oberlin College. Both institutions were established to offer interracial education and serve as examples of how Black colleges continued to triumph despite inequitable funding appropriations, laws regarding funding for Black students, and 19th-century campaigns of state flagship institutions and lawmakers. Harris highlights how the constant struggle for equity continued well into the 20th century to disparage Black communities and students, such as Lloyd Gaines. Harris vividly describes how Gaines filed suit against the University of Missouri School of Law after being denied admission due to his race. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gaines (Gaines v. Canada, 1938), rather than admit a Black student, the Missouri General Assembly chose to convert a defunct cosmetology school into a separate law school for Black students in 90 short days—clearly not enough time to establish an equitable option. Unfortunately, on March 19, 1939, Gaines disappeared after leaving his home to buy stamps, never to be seen again. Family, friends, and lawmakers were left to wonder if he had been murdered or left in hopes of finding a new environment. While the University of Missouri School of Law posthumously granted Gaines an honorary law degree and now honors him in its Gaines/Oldman Black Culture Center, the fact that he never got to attend the classes he fought so hard for is sobering.

Harris goes on to describe how these inequities perpetuated through time, despite the Civil Rights Movement and the Higher Education Act of the 1960s supposedly providing an opportunity for all people to attend college. But even now, very little has really changed. The Supreme Court just struck down affirmative action in admissions. Endowments at HBCUs, staying around $12 million, remain significantly lower than those of their higher education counterparts. State funding also continues to be lacking for HBCUs. Harris paints a clear picture of pivotal moments for equality in higher education and how HBCUs and Black Americans were repeatedly failed in those moments. Lastly, Harris provides radical ideas for how the U.S. government can remedy the situation, such as targeted debt cancellation, tuition-free college, redistribution of endowments, and more.

Those of us in the financial aid profession are all too familiar with limited funding for higher education. As an aid administrator who is passionate about serving first-generation, low-income students, though, I was shocked at how little I knew about the history detailed in The State Must Provide. As I read the book, I felt ashamed for never educating myself or recognizing my own privilege in not having to know these inequities exist. At HBCUs, many administrators, faculty, staff, students, and members of the surrounding community experience these inequities as their everyday reality. These institutions continue to do more with less. The underfunding of HBCUs continues to allow inequities to stand.

This book is a must-read detailing the origin of the issues and exploring several options to remedy them. As a reader of this book and an employee of a NASFAA member institution, I now feel equipped with the knowledge to advocate for issues such as addressing state funding disparities for minority serving institutions.  I highly recommend this reading for anyone interested in higher education or even just a more equitable future.

"The State Must Provide: The Definitive History of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education" by Adam Harris. Ecco Press, 2022, pp. 272.


Samantha Hicks is an assistant vice president of financial aid and scholarships at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. She began her career in higher education 13 years ago at Coastal Carolina University as a financial aid counselor. Hicks holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in business from Coastal Carolina University.  She also holds a doctoral degree in education with a specialization in higher education leadership.


Publication Date: 12/20/2023

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