The new efforts come as the schools and other public historically Black colleges and universities are benefiting from record government and philanthropic support. There is a deeper respect for the work they do with limited resources, and fights for fiscal parity within their state higher education systems are starting to pay off.
Maryland’s four HBCUs, for example, will receive $577 million over a decade, after the state recently settled a 15-year court battle over inequitable funding. Corporations such as Novartis, Apple and Google are providing tens of millions of dollars in grants to public HBCUs. And author MacKenzie Scott has given $580 million to 23 historically Black schools, many of which are public.
Still, higher education experts say there is no easy way to undo decades of state and federal neglect. Investment in public HBCUs is on the rise, but the legacy of inequity can complicate the reach of those dollars.
Eastern Shore President Heidi M. Anderson told a congressional committee in June that the average age of buildings on the campus is 44 years old and the school has more than $90 million in deferred maintenance. Tackling the backlog of repairs and renovations will require more time and more resources, Anderson said in an interview with The Washington Post.
“People say, ‘You’ve got $20 million from MacKenzie Scott, your alumni are giving at a higher level, you have this settlement from the state,’ but we’re still behind,” she said. “It means continual advocacy with legislators … in Annapolis and in D.C.”
There are 50 public historically Black schools in the nation. Some are rural with an agrarian focus. Others are in urban centers and known for educating local teachers, nurses and engineers.
Public HBCUs are more reliant on federal, state and local funding than their majority-White counterparts, making those partnerships critical to their viability, according to research by Krystal L. Williams at the University of Alabama. That reliance also makes the schools more vulnerable in economic downturns and when states withhold support.
States have a fraught history with their HBCUs. The disparities in funding are well documented and have led to lawsuits in Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina. Funding shortfalls, small endowments and limited access to capital have created inequities that are visible on many campuses.
A 2018 Government Accountability Office report identified extensive need for repairs and replacement of aging facilities at public and private HBCUs. State HBCUs reported average deferred maintenance backlogs of $67 million and a dearth of resources to address them.
“Public HBCUs’ ability to optimize federal, state and private dollars are bound by issues of infrastructure, capacity, academic offerings, organizational agility … and relationships with state actors,” said Terrell Strayhorn, director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University. But “these aren’t intractable problems.”
Some states are taking steps to help.
Virginia upped its appropriations for its two public HBCUs — Norfolk State and Virginia State universities — in the state budget signed this year. The legislature is providing money for technology upgrades and other capital improvements.
“While it’s awesome to have people recognize and understand our value, we hope that recognition continues,” said Makola M. Abdullah, president of Virginia State University. “Our institutions have been providing incredible value for the state, and all we’re asking is if you continue to invest … we’ll continue to provide that value.”
Abdullah chairs the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ Council of 1890s Institutions, which advocates for the 19 HBCUs founded on federal land like VSU and Eastern Shore. Although states are obligated to match federal dollars for all land-grant universities, the historically Black ones are often shortchanged. But Abdullah has noticed a greater willingness among states to fix the problem.
Take Tennessee, where a recent audit found the state shorted its Black land-grant Tennessee State University as much as $544 million from 1957 to 2007. Earlier this month, a bipartisan legislative committee tasked the state’s higher education commission to submit recommendations by September to rectify the disparity.
Some Tennessee lawmakers are looking to Maryland’s $577 million HBCU settlement as a model.
Maryland will provide Eastern Shore, Morgan State, Coppin State University and Bowie State a total of $57.7 million annually for 10 years starting in fiscal 2023. The funding is considered supplemental and not meant to supplant state appropriations. It can be used for scholarships, faculty recruitment and new academic programs to make the four state universities more competitive.
There are limitations. The money cannot be used to upgrades facilities, even though many of the academic programs being added would benefit from better infrastructure.
“I can build out these new, innovative academic programs, but I’m putting them into facilities that are not conducive for today’s learners or those new programs,” said Aminta Hawkins Breaux, president of Bowie State. “So that only gets us half of the way there.”
Bowie State and Eastern Shore, like many HBCUs that received donations from MacKenzie Scott, invested the money in their endowments and have been using the earnings to fund scholarships. Breaux said when she arrived at Bowie State in 2017 there was less than $10 million in the endowment, which today stands at $31 million.
“If you won the lottery today, you wouldn’t go out and spend it all,” Breaux said. “We’re looking at the short-term needs and helping students get through their education … but I also want to make sure Bowie State remains viable for future generations.”
Breaux is encouraged by the state’s recognition that HBCUs are economic engines, and thankful for allies like Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D), who played a vital role in ending the legal battle.
Anderson said funding Eastern Shore and other public HBCUs is a matter of investing in the communities they serve. Students in the agricultural school regularly work with local farmers, while those pursuing health-care degrees at the university fanned out in Somerset County to administer coronavirus vaccines. Building out these partnerships and programs requires sustained commitments from the state and federal government.
If anything, Black colleges have more allies in philanthropic circles, statehouses, Congress and the White House trying to help.
President Biden is proposing unprecedented investments in HBCUs through his two-part economic plan, including billions of dollars to modernize campuses, boost research and cover some tuition for the neediest students. The administration is also asking for an increase of $600 million more for minority-serving institutions, historically Black and tribal colleges, and community colleges in the 2022 budget.
It’s not yet clear how much federal funding will head to historically Black schools, as Biden’s budget and economic proposals go through Congress. Still, HBCU advocates are encouraged by the administration’s opening gambit and confident that bipartisan support from lawmakers will deliver results.
“We’ve had very positive feedback from both parties,” Harry L. Williams, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports public historically Black colleges. “There are challenges on our campuses where we need those dollars to improve facilities just as states need them to improve their roads.”
Strayhorn at Virginia Union, a private HBCU, sees federal investment as one of the best ways for small Black colleges without name recognition to gain financial footing. Philanthropists are largely familiar with schools like Howard University, but less so with St. Philip’s College in San Antonio.
A number of lesser-known HBCUs are plagued by financial instability, dwindling enrollment and low graduation rates. Strayhorn said some of those problems are a matter of location and a shrinking population of college-age students — the same issues facing small liberal art schools — but others are the result of the legacy of discrimination.
In the absence of Biden’s proposals, members of Congress are exploring other routes to supply HBCUs more funding. A group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), has introduced legislation, dubbed Ignite HBCU Excellence, to invest in infrastructure, while Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) is pushing to make permanent agricultural scholarships for students attending land-grant HBCUs.
Williams at Thurgood Marshall is confident that the public interest in Black colleges is sustainable. Calls for racial justice following nationwide protests delivered record donations and other outpourings of support, but even as public attention may have waned the interest among philanthropists, corporations and policymakers remains, he said.
“This is not a fad,” Williams said. “We are now at a place where it is structural.”