Report urges Congress to address persistent underfunding of Black land-grant universities

The Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank, has released a new report outlining ways Congress can redress decades of underfunding for historically Black land-grant universities, which have received less financial support than white land-grant institutions, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Land-grant institutions receive federal funding through the Farm Bill, which is set to expire on Sept. 30. “Equity and justice for Black land-grant colleges and universities” should be at the center of policy conversations about the renewal of the law, the report says, as “provisions added in various Farm Bills have led to inequitable funding for Black land-grant institutions located in states where the state has refused to provide required matching funds.”

A history of economic disparities

Each state and territory, including Washington, DC, has at least one land-grant university designated by its state legislature or Congress to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862, 1890, and 1994, according to the Association of Public Land Grants and Universities. The original mission of these institutions was to spread public education to farmers and working people previously excluded from higher education, says the National Archives.

Funding for 57 land-grant institutions, which include Cornell University, the University of California System, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was set forth in the first Morrill Act of 1862, which provided grants in the form of expropriated Indigenous land that states would sell to establish public universities and raise money for endowments, the Pulitzer Center reports. Congress later determined that additional federal funding had to be matched 100% by nonfederal funds, which has typically been provided by states. 

The Second Morrill Act of 1890 established 19 federally recognized Black land-grant universities, as students of color were often excluded from universities founded by the first Morrill Act. However, the 1890 law stated that Black land-grants, which include Florida A&M University, Tennessee State University (TSU), and North Carolina A&T University, would need a waiver from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to access federal funding if states failed to provide up to 50% of their financial obligation. Throughout the decades, states have failed to meet that funding level—without repercussions—leaving Black land grants with reduced federal and state support. 

Research expenditures per full-time equivalent student, for instance, are nearly three times greater at the 1862 institutions than at the 1890 institutions, and endowments per full-time equivalent student are six times greater. In the years spanning 2011 to 2022, states fully funded white land-grant universities, while Black land-grant universities lost nearly $200 million in resources because states failed to provide matching funds.

Fixing inequitable funding

Despite this lack of federal and state financial assistance, Black land-grant institutions have made an enormous impact on national and state economies, the report says. Black land-grants have contributed $5.5 billion annually to local, state, and national economies and have generated over $52 billion in lifetime earnings for each graduating class, while providing greater access to higher education for students from underrepresented groups, including Black and low-income students. Of the more than 117,000 students enrolled full-time at Black land-grants, 75% are Black, and 57% receive Pell Grants. In comparison, just 6% of students in the predominately white land-grant institutions are Black, and 22% of their undergraduates receive Pell Grants.

“HBCUs have always provided an excellent education but have never been given the support they need to live out their mission to the fullest extent,” the report’s author, Denise A. Smith, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said in an interview, according to The Chronicle. “This is an opportunity to prioritize Black students and institutions in a way that’s never been done before and to undo what has been done to stifle Black opportunity.” 

Related: Tennessee commits $318M to its only public HBCU, but does that compensate for decades of underfunding? >

To compensate for a lack of funding for Black land-grant universities across the country, the report makes several policy recommendations, which include: 

  • Providing $600 million in new mandatory equity funding for 1890 institutions, which would help address decades of inequitable and lost federal and state support for education, research, and extension programs
  • Phasing out waivers for one-to-one state matching of federal funds to 1890 institutions to incentivize states to fully fund Black land grants 
  • Increasing minimum funding percentages authorized in the Farm Bill for 1890 institutions
  • Providing $100 million to expand USDA scholarship support for 1890 students studying agricultural sciences
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