The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ​​101 HBCUs get nearly 7 times less money than 1 other school. That must change.

Vice President Harris makes remarks as she attends the Greater Washington Partnership's Shared Prosperity event at her alma mater, Howard University on March 30. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University, chairs the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Glenda Glover, president of Tennessee State University, is the board’s vice chair.

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) make up only 3 percent of the country’s colleges and universities, but they enroll 10 percent of all African American students and produce nearly 20 percent of all African American graduates. These schools generate nearly $15 billion in direct economic impact and produce 80 percent of Black judges, 25 percent of Black science professionals, 70 percent of Black dentists and physicians, and 40 percent of Black members of Congress.

HBCUs are the primary driver of moving low-income Black people into the middle class.

Despite that remarkable return on investment, the disparity in financial support for HBCUs and for predominantly White institutions of higher education (PWIs) continues to widen. The United Negro College Fund calculated that between 2003 and 2015, the federal funding gap between HBCUs and PWIs has actually quadrupled, from about $400 to $1,600 per student.

This cannot continue. HBCUs have a proven record of doing more with less — but accepting less can no longer be an option.

There has been a recent uptick in support for HBCUs, and some state legislatures and major corporations are rethinking their HBCU investment strategies, but the magnitude of the gaps requires substantive and sustained federal action.

Consider these disparities: Of $42 billion in federal research and development funds awarded in fiscal 2018, only $400 million — less than 1 percent — went to HBCUs, according to research done by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), and that figure declined by 13 percent the following year.

TMCF Chief of Staff David Sheppard notes that one predominantly White institution, Johns Hopkins University, received nearly seven times more research funding than all 101 HBCUs combined.

The fund’s research suggests that the average HBCU needs $87 million to maintain, repair or renovate drafty, poorly lit classrooms and cramped, outmoded laboratories. HBCU access to infrastructure funding, credit and debt forgiveness remains far below that of their predominantly White peers.

Colleges and universities are often able to address their financial needs by drawing on endowments — donated funds invested on the institution’s behalf. But here the disparity is also extreme: About 100 U.S. universities have endowments of more than $1 billion — and not one of them is an HBCU. Only seven HBCUs have endowments above $100 million.

Despite these disadvantages, the United Negro College Fund calculates that HBCUs improve economic mobility for their students at a rate double that of predominantly White institutions. They achieve these results with tuitions averaging 30 percent below those of PWIs while serving nearly double the proportion of Pell Grant-eligible students and substantively more first-generation college students than any other higher-education sector in the United States.

The President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs has been tasked with advancing the HBCU initiative President Biden announced in September, with goals of increasing HBCU capacity to provide the highest-quality, low-cost education to their students. We are focused on elevating public awareness of the successful HBCU model, and why it is more important than ever before to invest fully in such a major part of the United States’ future.

Our immediate goals are to:

1. Fund technology and physical enhancements that match the cutting-edge learning environments in higher education. That includes maintenance, repair or renovation of thousands of dilapidated classrooms and outdated laboratories, which could reduce historical inequities.

2. Expand HBCU research and contracting capacity in public and private sectors across a variety of interdisciplinary initiatives, focusing particularly on projects impacting people of color and low-resource communities.

3. Make HBCUs even more affordable for low-resource families with streamlined tuition and financial assistance from freshman year through graduate school.

4. Preserve and grow the HBCUs — public and private — with a particular emphasis on smaller institutions, which provide continuing education and skills training to an even broader population of students.

The Biden administration has already invested $5.8 billion in the HBCU community. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently proposed raising maximum Pell Grant awards by $2,175 and investing $752 million to “enhance institutional capacities” at HBCUs and other minority-serving and/or low-resource institutions. That is a significant step, but it cannot be the last.

This is a bipartisan issue: Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to contain the costs of higher education while improving outcomes. But real action will come only with public support. That’s why we’re taking our case outside, demonstrating to American families, employers, potential investors and political leaders that the HBCU model for containing operating costs and reducing student debt without compromising quality should become the national standard for higher education.

Clearly, there’s work to be done, but HBCUs must no longer be expected to do more with less.