The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black colleges are the biggest victims of states’ invasive new funding rules

New funding models undermine the founding mission of many HBCUs -- to provide education to all.


Over the past five years, states have been overhauling how they fund public colleges and universities, tying revenue to student performance instead of enrollment. The goal is to motivate schools to improve the education they provide to students. But in reality, performance-based funding has undermined some colleges’ ability to do just that. These policies have limited higher-education options for low-income, first-generation and other types of at-risk college students. The consequences have been particularly severe among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), threatening their founding principle to provide higher learning for all types of students.

Without thoughtful planning, these policies will continue to erode HBCU’s ability to educate those young people who benefit most from college degrees.

Performance-based funding policies, like the Louisiana Grad Act, require that colleges meet certain goals in order to increase their tuition rates or receive more state funding. Some states track how quickly students gain credit hours or the percentage who receive a degree. Others judge schools based on how many graduates are employed a year later and their average wages. These are laudable goals, but to meet them, some schools have had to institute significant new restrictions on their admissions, including setting minimum ACT or SAT requirements. Some state governing boards, such as the Louisiana Board of Regents, have effectively eliminated remedial classes on college campuses.

These changes are a major blow for HBCUs, like Elizabeth City State University and Fort Valley State University. Many such schools often were founded as open admissions institutions with the mission of educating students of varied academic and social backgrounds. But performance-based funding undercuts that mission, making it financially risky to admit students who are less academically prepared. Further, eliminating remedial classes makes college inaccessible to many students and tying admissions to ACT- and SAT-test scores disadvantages black students. Even among high achievers, black students tend to score lower than white students on standardized tests for various reasons, including less access to test-prep services and self-defeating fears of reinforcing stereotypes. Standardized test scores are a poor predictor of college success. The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently released a research report that revealed students with strong high school GPAs and low standardized-test scores generally performed well in college, while students with low high school GPAs and high test scores generally performed poorly.

These state policy changes are limiting college options for some black students, forcing them into community colleges or for-profit colleges. Those schools often have low graduation rates and lack many benefits of four-year colleges, such as research faculty, Greek letter organizations, and extracurricular activities.  Other students are forced to pay higher tuition and costs to attend open-admissions private colleges. Only four of the 34 open-admissions HBCUs are public, according to an analysis of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System by the White House Initiative on HBCUs (WHIHBCU); the other 30 are private and more expensive.

The increased financial burden on students is especially problematic amid changes to the Pell Grant and PLUS loan programs. Across all HBCUs, nearly 73 percent of students qualify for the Federal Pell Grant because of financial need, according to the WHIHBCUs. But in 2011, Pell Grant awards were eliminated for summer semesters. That same year, the U.S. Department of Education began denying PLUS loans to parents with debts in collection or that were charged off.  Since then, more than 70 percent of the PLUS loan application denials have been a result of delinquent debt that held by the original creditor, charged off, or in collection status. Recent negotiated changes, set to be enforced in 2015, relax the credit requirements.  Many HBCU advocates have expressed optimism in the negotiated changes.

The colleges themselves are suffering financially, too. Most states have not restored funding to their colleges and universities at pre-recession levels. Fourteen HBCUs are receiving less revenue now than they received more than 10 years ago.

Table 1: The 10 HBCUs that experienced the greatest loss of state revenues (not adjusted for inflation) when comparing 2003 to 2013
Institution Name Net loss
South Carolina State University (SC) -$12,979,170 (-89%)
Southern University and A & M College (LA) -$15,171,103 (-43%)
Southern University at New Orleans (LA) -$4,009,163 (-41%)
Grambling State University (LA) -$6,089,011 (-33%)
Bluefield State College (WV) -$1,477,278 (-22%)
Albany State University (GA) -$3,446,828 (-20%)
Savannah State University (GA) -$3,108,823 (-19%)
West Virginia State University (WV) -$1,868,963 (-15%)
Fort Valley State University (GA) -$2,554,231 (-13%)
Tennessee State University (TN) -$2,254,956 (-6%)

Source: WHIHBCU Data Dashboard, presented at the HBCU Week Conference 

These new policies are severely hindering the ability of HBCUs to fulfill their founding missions. They were never meant to be distinguished by selectivity, elitism, or exclusion. HBCUs and their alums teach the world what inclusion should look and feel like. They make a college education accessible to young people who often have few other opportunities for improving their futures. But these policies restrict HBCU autonomy and student choice, inhibiting a powerful engine for inclusion that our society needs. By limiting the financial resources of these institutions and their students, we are undermining our national commitment to providing opportunities for personal advancement and prosperity to all.

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