Book explores legacy of inequitable investment in Black colleges as advocates urge greater federal funding

A new book from journalist Adam Harris highlights the decades of exclusion and underfunding that have shaped the trajectory of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—and calls on the government to step up support. Harris’s book, titled The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal—and How to Set Them Right, comes as HBCU advocates are urging federal lawmakers to increase the amount of HBCU funding in the latest budget reconciliation bill, which is poised to deliver far less than what President Biden originally proposed.

Legacy of inequitable access

“The United States has stymied Black education since the country’s founding,” Harris writes, detailing the ways systemic discrimination has shaped the higher education system. He chronicles the policies that gave rise to Black colleges more than 150 years ago, the forces that have depressed Black enrollment at institutions with the most resources, and the persistent underfunding that has forced Black colleges to “do more with less for those who have always had less.”

Harris calls attention to persistent racial stratification across higher education. A 1940s report estimated that 85 percent of the nation’s 75,000 Black college students attended “poorly funded” Black institutions. “Even today, places with the most resources, including flagships, have very small Black enrollments,” Harris told The Chronicle of Higher Education. For instance, Black students made up just 3.2 percent of last year’s freshman class at Alabama-based Auburn University but account for 30 percent of high-school graduates in the state.

And Black student representation at some top schools appears to be trending downward: Harris cites data from the nonprofit Education Trust showing a drop in the representation of Black students at almost 60 percent of the nation’s 101 “most selective public colleges and universities” across the last two decades.

Focus on HBCU funding, Harris urges

To address racial inequities in higher education, “one way to make a real difference would be to support the institutions that Black students have historically attended, and that still produce an outsize share of Black professionals,” Harris writes. According to UNCF, the nation’s 107 HBCUs account for just 3 percent of U.S. colleges but enroll 10 percent of African American students and produce nearly 20 percent of all African American college graduates.

Following years of inequitable funding, however, many historically Black institutions struggle to remain financially viable. Harris points to one report finding that, during 2010-12, states denied Black land-grant colleges more than $56 million in expected funding. Tennessee, meanwhile, recently acknowledged shorting the Nashville-based HBCU Tennessee State University hundreds of millions of dollars across the last seven decades. Many HBCUs have similar stories, Harris says. “The scale of harm is devastating,” he writes. “Wealth accumulates, and Black colleges have been blocked from building it.”

HBCU endowments have suffered accordingly, limiting those institutions’ ability to provide financial aid and maintain campus infrastructure. In one 2018 Government Accountability Office report, the average deferred maintenance backlog at public HBCUs was $67 million and $17 million at private HBCUs. HBCU enrollment has weakened, as a result, falling by 11 percent between 2010 and 2019.

Recent philanthropy promising but still insufficient, advocates say

The last 18 months, meanwhile, have brought a wave of philanthropic investments in HBCUs—a bright spot for the institutions amid the strains of the COVID-19 pandemic. The gifts and accompanying attention, The New York Times writes, “seem to signal a belated epiphany, a sudden recognition of the importance of the nation’s 100 historically Black colleges, which have educated Black Americans when other institutions openly, or subtly, would not.”

Related: Big philanthropic investments a bright spot for HBCUs amid financial uncertainty worsened by pandemic >

HBCU leaders have greeted the high-profile giving with cautious optimism, hoping it’s the start of a trend that will help address the historical financial disparities between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions. Still, “it’s difficult for the institutions to lean on philanthropy as a salve for more than a century of systemic discrimination,” Harris told Inside Higher Ed.

Lodriguez Murray, vice president of UNCF, echoes that sentiment. “Many of these institutions have lived through 150 years of underinvestment,” he said. “There’s more to be done on behalf of students.”

A push for greater federal, state investment

Harris makes several recommendations, noting that predominantly white colleges that benefited from discriminatory practices could direct some of their wealth to buoy Black colleges and students. Ultimately, however, “the primary responsibility for repairing the legacy of higher education… lies with the government,” Harris writes. For instance, legislators could establish scholarship funds and loan-forgiveness programs for Black students, or direct additional funding to institutions that disproportionately enroll and support minoritized populations.

Harris notes that the Biden administration has delivered around $3 billion for HBCUs this year, an increase over the typical $1 billion, and calls on federal officials to provide additional resources. Biden also had proposed a $55 billion infusion to support infrastructure and research at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, but the latest version of Congress’s budget reconciliation bill includes just $2 billion toward that goal, Inside Higher Ed reports. Historically Black and other minority-serving institutions also would receive $27 billion in tuition subsidies and $1.45 billion for institutional aid under the legislation.

HBCU advocates are urging Congress to step up their investment. The nation’s land-grant HBCUs “are uniquely positioned to be able to help solve some of the problems of the nation, but through some historic underfunding, our infrastructure isn’t where our talent is,” said Makola Abdullah, president of Virginia State University and chair of a group of HBCU presidents.

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