Concerned students, staff, and allies of HBCUs in Texas recently attending a conference that laid bare issues of the inadequate funding these institutions. Get the full story about the event held at Huston-Tillotson University from Megan Menchaca at the Austin American-Statesman.

From left, Robert Ceresa, Doug Greco and Theodore Francis hold a panel discussion about a public leadership project at the inaugural Texas Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference on Friday at Huston-Tillotson University. (Credit: Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman)

Texas students and campus leaders held the state’s first Texas Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference in Austin over the weekend to discuss the need for increased investments in HBCUs.

The event, held at Huston-Tillotson University, featured speeches from campus leaders, a conversation with state lawmakers who represent HBCUs in their districts and a roundtable discussion with students who spoke about the experience and challenges of attending HBCUs.

Archie Vanderpuye, Huston-Tillotson University provost, said organizers developed the conference to create opportunities for students to learn and shed light on the need for more resources and support for HBCUs in Texas. He said he hopes the conference leads to more support for HBCU’s in the state and across the country. 

“While we focus on Texas, we are definitely aware that our sister institutions in other states share this common goal, and it is our hope that we’re going to share what we learn here with them so that we can build a shared future together,” Vanderpuye said.

Jeffrey Clemmons, a Huston-Tillotson alumnus, who graduated in 2021, said there has been a “funding inequity from day one” between money for HBCUs and the flagship state university systems. In addition to addressing inequities, he said one of the conference’s goals is to develop a coalition of HBCUs that can address shared issues in the future.

“Prior to this moment, as far as we could tell, while there were informal channels, there was never a unified conference of HBCUs,” Clemmons said. “We were never able to come together in a unified fashion and advocate for issues, and so I certainly hope that the one thing that comes out of this is that we will no longer be strangers to one another and we will be united.”

‘The business model is broken’

Multiple conference speakers noted that state and federal governments have a history of providing inequitable funding and investments to HBCUs compared with other universities, and that lack of funding has continued to persist, including in Texas. 

The two public four-year HBCUs in Texas — Texas Southern University and Prairie View A&M University — received nearly $2,500 less in combined average state funding per student compared with the state’s two flagship universities in 2019, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That gap doubled in 2021.

The majority of HBCUs in Texas are private, including Huston-Tillotson University, and don’t receive funding from the state, but they have to compete with the other universities across the state for other investments and donations.

Colette Pierce Burnette, president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University, said “the business model is broken,” and it’s an “uphill battle” to get for funding for HBCUs. She said she has to balance the costs of the school with serving Pell Grant-eligible students, which means seeking out alternative sources of revenue to try to keep tuition costs low.

“Our schools are often called resilient, … but at some point, resilience becomes abusive. We should not have to be resilient to move from surviving to thriving,” Burnette said. “I do see light. My institution has come a very long way, but we need investments in us in order for us to be able to increase the number of textbooks that we can use to educate.”

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, encouraged HBCUs to prepare funding strategies and lobby state representatives to get more support at the Capitol.

“Unfortunately, a lot of (legislators) don’t know the importance of HBCUs. They only see it from afar,” Johnson said. “When they see it from afar, they only see it as, ‘Oh look at that small campus. Look at the older buildings that are falling down. Why should we give you money?’ Because the buildings are falling down. Because the campus is small.”

Students from historically black colleges across Texas hold a discussion Fridua at the HBCU Conference. (Credit: Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman)

HBCU advocacy 

Students and community members from seven of the nine HBCUs in Texas — Jarvis Christian College; Prairie View A&M University; St. Philip’s College; Southwestern Christian College; Texas Southern University; Wiley College and Huston-Tillotson University — attended the event.

Samarya Howard, a Huston-Tillotson University student, said she’s faced challenges with inconsistent public transportation while attending college, which has led her to miss class and spend hundreds of dollars on Uber and Lyft. 

At her alma mater, Southwestern Christian College, Howard said buildings were “falling apart,” but there was not enough money to rebuild them. She said she wants more money invested in HBCUs to repair buildings and fund programs in which students can develop their talents. 

“There’s so many different things that we experience as students, but I think, if we start to really talk together, we can show people, ‘OK, this is what we need,’” Howard said. “I think we need to get people to be more vocal (and) actually lock in to what they’re trying to accomplish because it’s not only important for them, but also for the HBCU and for the other students.”

Clemmons said he wants more funding to go toward scholarships and financial support for students, facility upgrades for HBCUs without proper ventilation systems or air conditioning systems, and civic centers on every campus to get students of color more involved.

“I hope that legislators who are not here will see what we did at this conference and will hear the stories from this conference and say, ‘Hey, I need to go talk to my HBCU that’s in my district,’” Clemmons said. “I really want them to come to the table … and have a transparent conversation about the inequities that have not been fixed in our state.”