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The Injustice of Underfunded Public HBCUs

Federal officials say 16 states have shortchanged their Black land grant colleges by billions of dollars. Equitable funding would benefit not only students at these vital institutions but their states’ economies as well.

Soldiers’ Memorial Plaza at Lincoln University
Soldier's Memorial Plaza at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., celebrates the emancipated Union Army veterans who founded the institution in 1866. It received land grant status in 1890 after passage of the second Morrill Act. (Photo: Lincoln University)
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently sent letters to 16 governors taking their states to task for underfunding their historically Black land grant colleges and universities by a whopping $12.6 billion over more than two decades. “Our HBCUs graduate a huge share of our nation’s Black educators, doctors, engineers, judges, and lawyers,” wrote Cardona. “These institutions and the talented, diverse students they serve must have equitable funding in order to reach their full potential and continue driving innovation.”

The inequities the secretaries are seeking to rectify have a long history. Under the first Morrill Act, enacted in 1862, states received federal land, much of it seized or otherwise obtained from Native Americans, to fund the establishment of public colleges that offered curricula in agriculture, engineering and technical education, or funding to add those curricula to their existing public colleges.

However, none of that land or funding benefited institutions serving Black Americans. The second Morrill Act, enacted in 1890, attempted to rectify that inequity by requiring states with segregated education systems to establish land grant institutions for Black students in order to receive additional funding. As Cardona and Vilsack put it, “States choosing to open a second land grant university to serve Black students were required to provide an equitable distribution of state funds [emphasis mine] between their 1862 and 1890s land grant institutions.”

Failure to provide that “equitable distribution” of state funds over the decades is at the heart of the federal initiative targeting 16 states. Either state officials deliberately underfunded their public HBCUs or legislative education and budget committee members were asleep at their wheels. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Either way, though, it’s an injustice long overdue for addressing.

The federal departments used data from the National Center for Education Statistics, covering the period from 1987 to 2020, to calculate the amounts that land grant HBCUs would have received had their state funding per student been equal to that of the predominately white institutions established as a result the 1862 law. However, the departments looked only at disparities between predominantly white and Black land grant colleges like the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University, the University of Florida and Florida A&M University, and the University of Missouri and Lincoln University. If public non-land grant HBCUs like Savannah State University and Grambling State University had been included, the total amount of discrepancies would have been much higher.

In practical terms, this means HBCUs could have better recruited and retained top students, better maintained their infrastructures and facilities, and, as the secretaries put it, better positioned themselves to “compete for grants to increase educational opportunity for students.”

I experienced firsthand some of the fallout from the underfunding of HBCUs when I enrolled at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., which was founded in 1866 and given land grant status in 1890. Our dorms were not adequately maintained, and we had to rely on adjuncts from the University of Missouri to supplement our full-time instructors. Lincoln was underfunded by $361 million, according to the federal data.

Despite this, I found Lincoln a welcoming environment. I had the privilege of taking classes from Black instructors who stimulated my intellect in subjects as diverse as British literature and Black drama. Beyond academics, I loved the high-stepping-trotting marching band with athletic drum majors who could dance as well as play instruments. Parity funding with the University of Missouri (an original land grant university founded in 1839 and granted land grant status in 1862), located in Columbia where I grew up, would have provided Lincoln the opportunity to have made my experience even more salient.
Lincoln University marching band
The Lincoln University band marching down Madison Street in Jefferson City, Mo., during the school’s 1969 Homecoming festivities. Federal officials say Lincoln was underfunded by $361 million between 1987 and 2020. (Photo: Lincoln University)
In Georgia, where I reside now, the feds wrote the governor that historically Black Fort Valley State University, which enrolled just over 2,600 students last fall, would have received an additional $603 million from the state over the last three decades if its per-student funding were equal to that of the University of Georgia. “The longstanding and ongoing underinvestment in Fort Valley State University disadvantages the students, faculty and community that the institution serves. … It may contribute to a lack of economic activity that would ultimately benefit Georgia,” Cardona and Vilsack wrote.

Alumni of Fort Valley State University, Savannah State University and Albany State University, the state’s three public historically Black colleges, recently filed a federal lawsuit against the state Board of Regents alleging that it diverted resources away from HBCUs to strengthen academic programs at majority-white schools. It also alleges that buildings at the state’s three HBCUs are inferior and notes that those schools rely on state funding more than non-HBCUs.

State officials around the country have responded in different ways to the federal effort. Virginian Gov. Glenn Youngkin denied that his state has underfunded historically Black Virginia State University compared to the state’s other land grant institution, Virginia Tech. Maryland recently settled a pending lawsuit, agreeing to allocate $577 million to Black colleges over a 10-year period. In Georgia, three state representatives, Sandra Scott, Viola Davis and Kim Schofield, demanded that Gov. Brian Kemp make it a budget priority to eliminate the gaps. In Mississippi, state Rep. Alyce Clarke called on fellow lawmakers to immediately address the almost $258 million funding disparity between the state’s land grant HBCU, Alcorn State University, and Mississippi State University.

I have one additional suggestion. Most states have rainy-day funds in the billions of dollars. They should use some of those funds to close the gaps. Georgia, for an example, with a surplus of nearly $11 billion, could address the underfunding of all three of its state HBCUs and still have a surplus of around $9 billion.

Texas’ surplus is projected to be $32.7 billion at the end of this fiscal year, Florida’s is expected to total $20 billion and Virginia’s is projected at $5.1 billion. With surpluses of this magnitude, states could correct the inequities immediately and still have significant amounts left over for contingencies. This, of course, would require that they do the right thing and not make matters worse by obfuscating the true reasons for the inequities and entering into years of costly and unproductive litigation.

There is one additional thing state officials can do, and it won’t cost them a penny: They can and should apologize to residents and alumni of their Black colleges. They should tell them, as their elected representatives, that they will never allow this obvious wrong to happen again.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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