It’s no secret that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have produced some of the greatest leaders, thinkers, and creators the world has seen. Almost 20% of all Black college graduates come from HBCUs, as well as 25% of Black graduates in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. HBCU alumni also make up half of Black lawyers and doctors and roughly 80% of black judges. HBCUs produce so much excellence yet continue to be chronically underfunded in comparison to their predominantly white counterparts.
“HBCUs have absolutely faced decades, and for some over a century, of underfunding from both federal and state governments,” Kayla Elliott, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust said.
Research shows that HBCUs also receive lower philanthropic funding as well. A recent study — conducted by the philanthropic research group Candid and ABFE, a nonprofit that advocates for investments in Black communities – found that the average HBCU received 178 times less funding from foundations than the average Ivy League school in 2019
Additionally, HBCU endowments are a fraction of the size of those of predominantly white schools, according to Forbes. The magazine found that in 2020, the average endowment at the 18 white land-grant schools was $1.9 billion while at the Black colleges, it was $34 million. The magazine found that in 2020, the average endowment at the 18 white land-grant schools was $1.9 billion while at the Black colleges, it was $34 million.
Without proper funding, HBCUs are prone to experience deferred maintenance on buildings, lower scholarship offerings and financial aid packages for students, and lower salaries for teachers.
Many HBCUs have also experienced housing crises and overflow as a result of underfunding. In 2020, 55% of HBCU students reported experiencing housing insecurity, and 20% reported experiencing homelessness, according to a report by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University and Virginia Union University’s Center for the Study of HBCUs. Students at various HBCUs such as Howard University, Spelman College, and North Carolina A&T have held protests to voice their concerns over the lack of housing on campus and poor living conditions. Some schools like Tennessee State University and Morgan State University have resulted to renting out hotels for student housing.
According to an investigation conducted by Forbes, the nation’s Black land-grant universities have been underfunded by at least $12.8 billion over the last three decades compared to their predominantly white counterparts.
All land-grant schools, whether Black or white, were created with the same purpose: to foster agricultural research and instruction. Forbe’s investigation compared HBCUs to their state’s historically white land-grant institutions to determine whether public HBCUs have been underfunded.
Forbes found that North Carolina A&T University had the largest gap in funding when compared to its white counterpart, North Carolina State University. Since 1987, it has been underfunded over $2.7 billion. According to the Forbes investigation, the “single worst instance of annual underfunding for any school was in 2020” when the North Carolina legislature appropriated N.C. A&T $95 million, $8,200 less per student than the $16,400 per student it gave to NC State.
Tennessee State University (TSU), the only public HBCU in Tennessee, was also supposed to receive funds matching its federal land grant, but the state allocated no land-grant funds to the institution between 1957 and 2007. In 2021, a legislative report found that during those 50 years, the state of Tennessee underfunded Tennessee State University by as much as $544 million. According to the Tennessean, TSU’s white counterpart, The University of Tennessee received its full state match, and in some years received more than federally required.
“There were funds available for the University of Tennessee, but there were no funds for TSU,” TSU President Glenda Glover said. “There is something wrong with that picture. And there is no right way to do what’s wrong. This is a wrong that has been perpetrated on TSU.”
TSU has since received a historic $250 million from the State of Tennessee that will go toward long-overdue campus repairs and upgrades but cannot be used to build student housing as such buildings are considered auxiliary facilities that generate revenue, according to a recent comptroller’s report.
TSU officials also attributed the university’s recent housing overflow problems that were brought up in the state’s comptroller report to the historic underfunding.
“The accomplishments of Tennessee State University are all the more impressive when one recalls that TSU has experienced decades of being underfunded,” said Charles Galbreath, president of the TSU’s national alumni association. “The issue of land-grant funding must be considered when assessing the university’s business affairs and overall management.”
Many scholars accredit these cases of underfunding to historical and present-day systematic racism.
Last year, six students filed a lawsuit claiming that the State prioritizes funding for PWIs like Florida State University over HBCUs like FAMU. According to the Washington Post, “The complaint says there has been a deliberate effort by the state to undermine FAMU’s competitiveness by letting other public colleges duplicate its academic programs, luring away prospective students. Decades of disparate state funding have prevented FAMU from achieving parity with its traditionally White counterparts, according to the suit. It claims the University of Florida received a larger state appropriation per student than FAMU from 1987 to 2020, amounting to a shortfall of roughly $1.3 billion.”
“The lawsuit also alleges that FAMU faculty members are paid less than counterparts at other Florida universities and that FAMU has been hurt financially by issues such as the state’s performance-based funding system, which helps determine how much money goes to schools,” according to CBS News.
“We do deserve to be treated equally as those students that are literally across the tracks from us. It’s not fair that we aren’t able to get the same opportunities. We aren’t allowed to get the same amount of money. We aren’t allowed the same education in the same city as another school that has every opportunity in the world.” said FAMU student and plaintiff Brittney Denton.
If the judge rules in the plaintiff’s favor, the case could have a significant outcome like that of the rulings in Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina for non-discriminatory funding at public HBCUs. In March 2021, after a 15-year court battle Maryland agreed to pay $577 million to the state’s four public HBCUs. In 2002, The US District Court ordered Mississippi to spend more than 500 million on its 3 HBCUs and 4 years later Alabama agreed to pay $600 million toward a 30-year campus renovation plan for the state’s two public HBCUs.
Adam Harris, journalist and author of the book “The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal” calls on states to do an individual account of what reparations are owed to those institutions. The United Negro College Fund suggests a three-pronged approach to tackling underfunding issues at HBCUs. First, they say to ask that the federal government commit to funding HBCUs, collectively at federally mandated levels going forward while providing extra funds to address the deferred maintenance backlog. Secondly, they say to rally public and private sector donors to help HBCUs attain unrestricted funds to obtain parity in their endowments. Lastly, they suggest capitalizing on the greater awareness of HBCUs to attract a higher level of contributions from private donors and reinforce the importance of unrestricted gifts.
Inside Higher Ed reports that the upcoming update to the farm bill may make up for historical underfunding at the country’s 19 land-grant HBCUs. “The farm bill, last updated in 2018, is a wide-ranging package of legislation that authorizes programs and spending related to agriculture and nutrition, including millions for agriculture research and extension services for land-grant universities. The 2018 bill included a number of wins for the Black land-grants such as creating six new centers of excellence and $80 million in scholarship funds for HBCU students. Advocates are hoping to build on those gains in this next update.”
The Biden-Harris Administration has also made strides to remedy the underfunding of HBCUs. According to the White House, they have delivered nearly $6 billion cumulative investment through the Department of Education to support HBCUs.
At the beginning of August, the US Department of Education announced the launch of two grant programs (Historically Black Colleges or Universities, Tribally Controlled Colleges or Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions Research and Development Infrastructure Grant Program and The Postsecondary Student Success Grant) to expand research infrastructure at HBCUs, Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities (TCCUs), and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and to increase completion and retention rates among underserved students.
Through the Historically Black Colleges or Universities, Tribally Controlled Colleges or Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions Research and Development Infrastructure Grant Program, HBCUs will receive $50 million to implement transformational investments in research infrastructure, including research productivity, faculty expertise, graduate programs, physical infrastructure, human capital development, and partnerships leading to increases in external funding.
Adequate funding for HBCUs is especially important with the end of affirmative action, as these institutions are expected to see an increase in enrollment.
The affirmative action ruling has raised funding concerns, and rightfully so, as increased enrollment means “more resources, buildings, space, and technology,” said Eddy Carder, an assistant professor of constitutional law and philosophy at Prairie View A&M.
According to Inside Higher Ed, David K. Sheppard, chief business and legal officer at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund believes it’s federal lawmakers’ responsibility to ensure HBCU campuses have the funds they need to hire additional faculty members, build up campus infrastructure and otherwise support incoming students.
“This was a decision by one of the three branches of government,” he said. “So now it’s up to the other two branches of government to see the value of historically Black colleges and universities, to see the value of African American student populations, and to react and lead the private sector.”
HBCUs, rich in history and Black excellence have given so much to their students – community, education, and preparation to take on the world. With proper funding imagine how much more good they can put out into the world.“It is important to invest in them, because we’ve continued to have this narrative that these institutions do more with less, and it’s high time that they don’t do more with less,” said Denise Smith, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “This is for the betterment of not only just the institutions, but for the nation.”