In the year 1837, my alma mater, Davidson College, was founded in the antebellum South. In the same year, Cheyney University, the first historically Black college or university, opened its doors in Pennsylvania.
For the next 184 years, American government and civil society would be much kinder to Davidson and predominately white institutions than it would be to Cheyney and HBCUs. As our society continues to address centuries of injustice and structural racism, higher education should not shy away from addressing the inequities this history created.
In his book “The State Must Provide,” Adam Harris wrote, “The public institutions that enroll high numbers of Black students have been hamstrung by limited state funding; the ones that have few Black students have been showered with it.”
These inequities are not accidents. Research details the ways public HBCUs have been historically underfunded; for example, land-grant HBCUs were left out of the Research Facilities Act of 1963 and other facilities programs. As a result, many 1862 land-grant universities have earned a top tier “Research I” designation, while no HBCUs do, land-grant or otherwise. Instead, HBCUs have $25 billion in deferred maintenance due to aging facilities.
What’s worse is that federal policy tacitly assumes HBCUs will be underfunded at the state level. Congress allows 1890s HBCUs to get full federal funding even if it isn’t matched by the states; predominately white land-grant universities must receive a full state match of federal funding.
This unequal treatment led to a massive wealth gap between HBCUs and PWIs. While a school’s endowment shouldn’t define the institution, the difference in assets provides a stark contrast between PWIs and other schools. At over $1 billion, Davidson College has a larger endowment than any HBCU, including Howard University. Meanwhile, at the beginning of 2019, Cheyney University faced a $10 million deficit and was at risk of losing its accreditation, in spite of being the top university for social mobility in the Pennsylvania state system of higher education.
Each of the 25 largest PWI endowments is greater than the value of all 102 HBCU endowments combined. HBCUs have approximately $3.9 billion in endowments to serve 300,000 students; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which recently lost Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar Nikole Hannah-Jones to Howard University, has an endowment of similar size to that of all HBCUs while serving a tenth as many students.
None of this even begins to address the disparate impact of higher education policy on Black students at both HBCUs and PWIs.
Despite these challenges, HBCUs represent an unqualified success in American education. A 2010 study by the US Commission on Civil Rights found, as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Given lower funding levels and the underprepared nature of some students, HBCUs are ‘doing a much better job’ than [PWIs] in educating African American students.”
While HBCUs represent only 3 percent of four-year degree programs, they produce 27 percent of Black STEM graduates, 46 percent of Black women engineers, and 30 percent of Black doctorates in science and engineering. These schools produce half of all Black public school teachers in the United States, making them the most important pipeline for diversity in public school faculty. From academia to the workplace, HBCUs are essential drivers of diversity.
Policy makers are catching on. Maryland is investing $577 million in its HBCUs to settle a lawsuit that arose from the disparity in state funding between HBCUs and PWIs. The Biden administration has proposed significant increases in HBCU funding as part of the Build Back Better agenda. Representative Alma Adams of North Carolina, a longtime champion of HBCUs (as well as my boss), introduced the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act to address historic inequities in HBCU funding and infrastructure.
Davidson, like many PWIs, has worked to address its role in perpetuating systemic racism, noting in an apology last year, “we acknowledge, regret and offer our deepest apology for the College’s complicity, after slavery was outlawed, in perpetuating unjust laws and false ideas that systematically denied to generations of Black Americans freedom, equality and opportunities that are a birthright.”
That’s a great first step, but it should inspire future steps — from supporting HBCU funding at the federal, state, and local level to finding new ways to authentically partner with HBCUs. HBCUs shouldn’t have to address these inequities alone. In the words of Harris, “Private money alone won’t save Black colleges, but, perhaps, money from predominantly white institutions can — and it might be those colleges’ responsibility to provide that aid.”
Countless students at predominately white institutions have benefited from inequities in higher education funding. Our beloved institutions have an obligation to address this reality, to speak out, and to act.
Sam Spencer is the communications director for US Representative Alma S. Adams of North Carolina.