By most conservative estimates, the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities are on life support. A combination of gaps in federal and state funding, alumni contributions and student enrollment has many of the institutions in this essential portion of the Black education portfolio desperately seeking options, with several close to shutting their doors.
While the recent chain of “misstatements” by the Trump administration represents the perceived lack of faith the Black community has with Republican promises to protect Black education, it actually represents a lack of sensitivity and understanding of how precarious a situation Black higher education faces today.
“We are deeply concerned about the proposals highlighted for the U.S. Department of Education, which include flat funding for the core Title III Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) program and deep cuts to federal student aid programs,” wrote Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund in a letter to the OMB.
“The proposed $3.9 billion cut to Pell Grant funds would undercut needed reforms to boost the purchasing power of Pell Grants for financially needy students, including the 70 percent of HBCU students who receive Pell Grants to earn college degrees. The proposed elimination of Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which supplement Pell awards to the poorest students to pay college tuition, would negatively impact more than 55,000 HBCU students who rely on this assistance to go to and through college. Reductions to Federal Work Study could impact more than 26,000 HBCU students who receive work-study jobs that not only help pay for college expenses but also enhance their employment prospects.“
While “HBCU” may be a relatively new designation, the distinction refers to the Southern states’ refusal to integrate higher education. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 allowed for federal one-to-one funding with the states for the purpose of starting and operating land-grant colleges. This funding, however, can only be made available to states that offer access to the land-grant colleges to African-Americans. The institutions that would become the HBCUs were attempts by the Southern states to qualify for Morrill Act funding while not having to integrate any of their schools.
While African-American enrollment in HBCUs has dropped to nine percent of Blacks enrolled in college and while the HBCUs represent only three percent of the national higher education portfolio, the 100 HBCUs graduated 15 percent of all the bachelor degrees African-Americans received in 2013-2014. According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, 80 percent of all Black judges, 50 percent of all Black lawyers and non-HBCU professors, 40 percent of all Black engineers and 40 percent of all Black members of Congress are HBCU graduates.
HBCUs continue to be the leading source of Black higher education — especially, for low-income Blacks — in large part because they can offer a specialized focus in a largely nondiscriminative environment. However, with Black enrollment in HBCUs dropping and with the closure of Saint Paul’s College and Lewis College of Business in 2013 and the potential closing of Wilberforce, South Carolina State University and Cheney, one must ask if the HBCUs have “run their course”? If not, is there a way to save them?
The Question of Federal Funding
The chain of Trump administration fumbles regarding HBCUs — starting with the president’s assertion that funding HBCUs may be unconstitutional because it is race-based funding and continuing through the recent booing and heckling of U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy Devos during a commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman — represents an unease and sense of perceived insensitivity from Washington. While Trump has said he will do more for HBCUs than any other president, for example, a deep dive into the statements he already made suggest otherwise.
With Trump’s Feb. 28 executive order transferring oversight of HBCUs from the U.S. Department of Education to the White House, the Trump administration took symbolic and factual ownership of the federal government’s role with HBCUs. While Trump’s “America First” budget proposal seeking to maintain last year’s initial budgeting of $492 million to HBCUs suggests a commitment to honor that promise, the devil is being found in the details. According to New America Foundation estimates, the Trump proposal would actually slash funding to HBCUs by 15 percent once 2016’s additional discretionary funding is factored in.
Worse, the White House’s call for cuts to the Department of Education’s budget means a $1.3-billion reduction to the Pell Grant Program’s $10.6-billion surplus for 2017, with another $3.9 billion in cuts proposed for 2018. While it is unreasonable to think that such cuts can be introduced into this year’s budget at this point of the process, the notion of the recommendation is causing confusion between the administration’s thoughts and actions concerning HBCUs.
With 70 percent of all HBCU students requiring federal student grants and work study programs and with the Trump administration additionally planning to eliminate the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Trump’s walked-back comment on the unconstitutionality of HBCU funding seems now to be a moment of truth in a storm of political spin.
“My Administration shall treat provisions that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender … in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment,” Trump wrote in his signing statement for H.R. 244 on May 5. Experts feel that Trump may not have understood the legal underpinnings of HBCU federal funding or the notion that the HBCU designation does not refer to the member schools’ demographics, but the mission and year of founding, when authoring the statement.
“With the advent of integration, Black students gained a plethora of new and exciting educational opportunities. High-achieving Black students are intensely recruited by well-endowed institutions in a position to provide full scholarships,” said Felicia Davis, a former United Negro College Fund official and director of the Building Green Initiative at Clark Atlanta University.
“Cash-strapped HBCUs serve a disproportionate share of lower- and moderate-income students. These institutions are dependent upon tuition from students that are dependent upon financial aid and student loans. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that many HBCUs strive to serve students that lack a quality high school education. For some time, HBCUs were still able to recruit and sustain based upon their exceptional legacy. Millennial students seemed far removed from the era of segregation and even the civil rights movement was receding into history.”
A Part of the Puzzle
Blaming the Trump administration for all of HBCUs’ financial problems is both unfair and shortsighted. A bigger part of the problem existed long before the 2016 general election.
Per a 2013 report from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, HBCUs in Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia have reportedly not received the proper state allocations they are entitled to by law.
The Morrill Act of 1890 creates one-to-one financial support for the land-grant colleges with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the hosting state. While the USDA met its end of the HBCU funding agreement, the states only matched $188 million to the USDA’s $244 million between 2010 and 2012. The Morrill Acts provide no punishment for states that fail to meet their funding obligations. The schools themselves are obligated to match up to 50 percent of the USDA’s funds in the absence of state funding to maintain continual federal funding.
This is creating a situation where HBCUs are increasingly becoming trigger-shy in seeking grants that require matching state funds. This is a second strike for schools that do not have a strong tradition of research and development, a key component of government and charitable grant securement.
This is also creating the illusion that the Southern states are engaging in picking winners for educational funding between HBCUs and other land-grant colleges, which tend to be larger, predominately White universities.
The problem with slashes to state and federal funding is compounded by the continuing nationwide trend of millennials foregoing college to go directly into the job market. Total post-secondary enrollment in the United States has dropped 1.4 percent from fall 2015 to fall 2016, extending the declining streak to five years. While most of this figure can be attributed to students over the age of 24 opting out of continued education and a major rejection of “for-profit” colleges, enrollment from recent high school graduates also is declining.
As non-research schools, HBCUs rely principally on government funding, student tuition and alumni contributions to pay the bills. With alumni investment with HBCUs falling below levels found at PWIs, many HBCU endowments have been depleted to the point that school-based financial aid and capital projects have been ignored.
The road to closing the attainment and wealth gaps between African-Americans and whites is education. If HBCUs are important toward the employment viability of the African-American community, then preserving them should be a priority.
Unfortunately, HBCUs carry psychological baggage that may be causing pause in the current conservative administration. “Many of those who argue that public Black colleges should not operate at the public’s expense do so because they consider these institutions to be ‘racially identifiable’,” the policy brief “Comprehensive Funding Approaches for Historically Black Colleges and Universities” by Marybeth Gasman reads.
“Missing from this argument is that white institutions also are racially identifiable. Too often, diversity or integration is defined as ‘start with white people and add people of color.’ It is also possible, as HBCUs have shown, to begin with a base of Black students and add whites, Asians and Latinos. HBCU allies and those within the HBCU community need to make sure that others understand that HBCUs are not ‘vestiges of segregation.’”
HBCUs are finding themselves in the crosshairs of the hyper-partisanship that has consumed the nation. The booing of Devos and the revoked invitation of U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) from being the commencement speaker at Texas Southern University is creating a situation that the people being insulted by these gestures are the very same people controlling the schools’ fate.
This represents a certain level of fatalism that HBCUs have engaged in. Failure to make themselves more attractive to students, to reach out to alumni, and to restructure more toward research and STEM preparedness have led many to think that HBCUs are suffering from a self-inflicted wound that the government happens to be rubbing salt in.
“I believe the enrollment lag can primarily be attributed to four things: ‘degree quality,’ a lack of recruitment efforts, feeder school partnerships and financial aid,” Nijinsky Dix, assistant director for Trio programs at Notre Dame, said to Atlanta Black Voices. “The conversation regarding the quality of one’s degree has always existed.”
“Due to the perceptions of HBCUs as [they compare] to predominately white institutions, degrees earned from Black institutions are deemed as subpar due to a lack of or inadequate resources, faculty and wavering admission standards. For instance, if one were to review the U.S. World News report for best colleges, an HBCU does not appear until No. 124 – Howard University.”
Dix points out that a lack of high school recruitment, inadequate financial assistance and the nonexistence of strategical partnerships — which were instrumental to her enrollment in a HBCU — are working to turn away Black students from HBCUs.
The health of HBCUs lies in breaking down misperceptions. Not only must HBCUs work to help allay white fears that HBCU funding somehow disadvantages non-Black students, but they also must convince the Black community that they are not just a part of the past but a key to the future.
How this could be accomplished is yet to be determined.
“Virtually all endowments are race-based – just as it is at Harvard, as well as Howard,” Felicia Davis added. “One is historically and predominately white, while the other is Black. The difference in magnitude of their endowments can be attributed to the fact that one group labored without compensation, placing it at an economic disadvantage. Education remains a vital key to closing persistent gaps and ensuring America’s greatness for generations.
“The future of HBCUs rests largely with the Black community. Judging by the student demand for diversity, cultural validation and creative authenticity, institutions known for advancing justice and human rights have the potential to attract students from diverse backgrounds as long as the commitment to academic excellence and productive student outcomes is honored.”