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State Legislators Will Now Need to Pay Closer Attention to their State-funded HBCUs
Most HBCUs are state-funded, state-managed, and state-regulated. So how are states doing, and how are these HBCUs faring under state management?
a Council of State Governments feature
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are a total of 99 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. While nearly half of them are designated private institutions, the other 50 are public institutions. These 50 schools – a slim majority – are state-funded, state-managed, and state-regulated. So how are states doing, and how are these HBCUs faring under state management?
It is an important time to ask these questions, especially considering the rising popularity of HBCUs. These schools — scattered across just 19 states, mostly in the South — are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of students enrolling in and getting accepted to them. While overall undergraduate enrollment declined during the pandemic, HCBU enrollment spiked substantially (30 percent), with some estimates showing as high as a nearly 60 percent increase. Policymakers must pay close attention to these trends in terms of what it means for these state institutions and state government commitments to them, especially given complex histories of enslavement, segregation, and racialization. Increases in HBCU enrollment will also continue to accelerate as Black communities worry about higher education access and financing in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision dismantling affirmative action.
Renewed concerns around funding recently came to light as the U.S. Department of Education presented fresh data exposing the underfunding of a specific class of important HBCUs known as “1890 land grant universities.” These nineteen schools currently exist in 18 states and are some of the most well-known, established, and prestigious historically Black colleges and universities.
History is important here. Land grant colleges were created, initially, in 1862 by the first Morrill Act, and those schools went on to become some of the most prestigious public universities in the nation (think Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, and even Cornell). However, in the years following the Civil War and Reconstruction, it became clear that race was a strong factor in admissions, denying many Black students — many of whom were only a generation removed from slavery or were formerly enslaved themselves — an equal opportunity in higher learning. Ultimately, Congress passed the second Morrill Act in 1890, which required either that race no longer be a factor in admissions at the original 1862 schools or that new land-grant schools be created for Black students. In the South, states opted almost exclusively to create new schools rather than fully integrate existing land-grant colleges. But those new 1890 schools also prevailed, due to the federal commitment to the land-grant program and the requirements that states uphold their end of the bargain too, matching federal funding dollar for dollar.
However, over the past 30 years, federal data shows 1890 HBCUs have been underfunded by states by more than $13 billion. A series of letters from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted underfunding by all states with the exception of Delaware and Ohio. Yet, even where states are meeting the 1:1 match, no state is going beyond that, and funding remains visibly inequitable between predominantly Black 1890s and predominantly white 1862s.
State and federal officials are becoming increasingly aware of the problem, and many are taking action. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA), and Representatives Alma Adams (D-NC) and Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) together introduced a “land grant equity and accountability act" that would push states to provide a “fair share” of funding for 1890s.
“State legislators across the country need to make funding our historically Black colleges and universities a priority," Maryland Delegate Karen Toles tells Perspectives. "As a professor at an HBCU, I see first hand how important that is."
HBCUs are economic and workforce development power houses. According to the UNCF, they generate an estimated $15 billion in economic activity annually, and are responsible for the production of nearly 140,000 jobs. Additionally, each graduating class of HBCU students can expect an average $130 billion in lifetime earnings, with each graduate bringing in roughly $1 million in added lifetime income with an HBCU degree. As a recent Century Foundation report shows, the 1890 HBCUs by themselves generate nearly $6 billion in annual economic impact while providing “$52 billion in lifetime earnings for each graduating class.”
“It is critical for state legislators on both sides of the aisle to understand the historical barriers to resources, their resilience, and the significant contributions of HBCUs and the need to further invest in them to ensure they thrive much like their non-HBCU counterparts,” said the author of that report, Century Foundation Senior Fellow Denise Smith. “When we look at the white land grant universities like Auburn, Clemson, the University of Georgia, and the University of Tennessee - they are vastly more well-resourced and better positioned than the Black land-grant universities that were founded just a few years before them.”
Out of the many programs and institutions states are asked to fund, HBCUs stand out as a quality investment generating huge returns in economic activity, jobs created, and GDP. Now, as enrollments grow, inequities are addressed, and the landscape in higher education continues to shift, state leaders will need to ask hard questions about the funding of public HBCUs in their respective states and make critical decisions about how to chart a way forward. The recent Supreme Court ruling is expected to further drive non-white populations — particularly Black populations — into non-white institutions, and state policymakers will need to mindful of this before federal scrutiny turns into further action or, as is the case in states like Florida and Tennessee, students in 1890 schools seek legal counsel to sue states for underfunding.
“Affirmative action leveled the playing field at predominantly white institutions, and since that mandate is now undone, it’s now more critical that ever to properly fund our HBCUs at the highest level,” Delegate Toles added. “Adequately funding our HBCUs in the State of Maryland has been a top priority for Black legislators and I know that will continue in the upcoming 2024 legislative session.”
Debates over how to provide educational opportunities to all Americans have run parallel to every major era of American history. From the first public schools to debates over segregation and now funding equity, the American public has planted the seeds for our future by making important decisions at crucial junctures in our history. Policymakers should continue to follow and act on the issue of funding equity in higher education, especially at historically Black colleges and universities, including inquiries on land-grant issues that move their states forward. “Black land grants deserve their state match as well as equitable state appropriations so they can continue to train some of the brightest minds in our country,” Smith added.