HBCUs seek highest recognition for research and innovation

For years, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been striving to earn the Carnegie Foundation’s R1 designation, the highest distinction reserved for doctoral universities in the U.S. To qualify for R1 classification or the second highest category, R2, universities must spend at least $5 million on research and have awarded at least 20 research or scholarship doctoral degrees, according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions. Out of the 101 HBCUs in the nation, only 11 HBCUs are in the R2 category; no HBCU has received the R1 classification, according to Inside Higher Ed.

However, some HBCUs have secured record-breaking amounts of funding for research in the last two years and are doubling down on their efforts to gain R1 status, which they say would allow their institutions to create more equitable opportunities for scholars from minority backgrounds.

Overcoming barriers to R1 classification

A lack of financial resources due to decades of underfunding and racial bias against Black scholars have been major barriers to HBCUs acquiring the coveted R1 status, says Inside Higher Ed. Even some of the wealthiest HBCUs, such as Howard University, have only a fraction of the institutional wealth of top research institutions.

However, in the “post-George Floyd era,” many HBCUs have reached and surpassed fundraising goals, says Willie E. May, vice president of research and economic development at Morgan State University, a public historically Black university in Baltimore, Maryland. Amid national discussion on racial inequities in the U.S., lawmakers and philanthropists have also worked to increase financial investments in HBCUs that have nurtured underserved communities since their founding.

Related: ‘Put the money to good use’: Revisiting MacKenzie Scott’s transformative unrestricted gifts to HBCUs >

As a result, HBCUs like Morgan State and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University have seen record fundraising this fiscal year, earning $74 million in federal and state grants for research purposes and $97.3 million in research awards, respectively. Howard University, meanwhile, became the first HBCU to raise a record $122 million this fiscal year, exceeding its goal to reach $100 million by 2024, according to a press release.

These efforts to gain R1 classification come as the Carnegie Foundation is in the process of restructuring its classification system to confer recognition on institutions that prioritize equity and increasing student access to higher education and student retention. “We want to create different lanes of excellence, to have institutions be able to see their institutional missions reflected in Carnegie,” says Mushtaq Gunja, executive director of the Carnegie Classification systems and senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

Still, HBCU leaders say that acquiring R1 status would contribute toward their equity goals. “We plan to do world-class research,” May explains. “We also plan to remain this institution that meets students where they are and takes students where they need to be to be successful.”

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