Increasing Funding to HBCUs is Essential to Ending Educational Inequality

by: Susan Lawyer Special to the AFRO
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Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been a safe haven for Black students to express themselves without judgement from their white counterparts. In fact, Shirley Caswell wrote in the Washington Post that a 2015 Gallup report measured five elements of well-being — social, purpose, financial, community and physical — and found that black HBCU graduates were “thriving” to a greater degree, in all categories, than their black counterparts who attended other institutions. The gap was largest in financial well-being. Black HBCU grads also felt that their colleges better prepared them for life after graduation (55 percent) than Black graduates who attended other institutions (29 percent).

Susan Lawyer Willis-001
Susan Lawyer Willis

Despite successfully educating some of our most underprivileged and underserved students, HBCUs need additional government support. Underfunding has caused student numbers to decline at some HBCUs, and delayed improvements in their physical infrastructure. The request by over 100 HBCU Presidents for a one-time investment of $25 billion may be considerable. However, it is ultimately necessary to ensure that these reputable colleges not only provide a robust education to those who need it most, but continue to survive with sustainable funding sources.

HBCUs have been repeatedly underfunded and neglected by policy makers despite the recent efforts of Barack Obama, who invested $5.2 billion to the institutions of learning during his Presidency. Following an executive order by President Trump which makes HBCUs a national priority – but provides no immediate funding – HBCU leaders have petitioned the White House for large-scale investment. As Thurgood Marshall College Fund President Johnny Taylor said after the order was signed, ‘you cannot have mission without money’.

Several leaders of HBCUs are disappointed that no funding was immediately offered. However, meaningful change does not occur overnight. President William R. Harvey of Hampton University said that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step’, and this executive order has started that process. It recognizes the importance of HBCUs, while promising to make them more competitive when securing grants and contracts. More importantly, it has directed national attention towards these institutions, highlighting their importance to urban communities and their continued need for support.

Across the country, HBCUs enroll approximately 300,000 students and award degrees to more underprivileged African-American students than non-HBCU institutions. They have educated leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement, and continue to produce notable individuals in the black community. Despite improving the prospects of urban communities, a lack of financial support has resulted in some colleges suffering from declining enrollment rates. According to the Miami Herald, Florida A&M student numbers have dropped 25 percent in just four years.

HBCUs don’t need funding to enhance their academic reputation. Nor do they need it to attract more students to their campuses. They need it to ensure the long-term outcomes of their esteemed missions.

HBCU leaders have already suggested how their colleges would use $25 billion. Some suggest increasing support to Pell Grants. This would reduce the college debt of HBCU students, 70 percent of whom are eligible for Pell Grants, yet borrow more than other college students. Increasing Tier III institutional funding would also allow HBCUs to improve staff salaries and campus facilities. Despite African-American citizens contributing greatly to the military, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) funding in HBCUs has steadily declined. Hampton University’s William R. Harvey has argued that government funds could be used to support their programs and training.

Other support groups have also offered their suggestions. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has argued that extra funding could increase the maximum Pell Grant student awards, or allow two years of free tuition at HBCUs –  a benefit of many competing community colleges. This could be another opportunity to increase access to higher education and narrow the educational divide.

After being deprived of necessary support for years, it remains uncertain whether HBCUs will receive $25 billion from the Trump Administration. This funding would allow them to increase staff salaries, broaden financial aid and reinvigorate their physical infrastructure. However, this should only begin the conversation. Program sustainability is ongoing and the funding should be, too. If anyone wishes to overcome educational inequality in America, supporting HBCUs must be a top priority.

Susan Lawyer Willis is chair of Education for All, a nonpartisan national advocacy organization based in Washington DC that campaigns for inclusive education policies.

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