The Century Foundation Releases Report on Achieving Financial Equity and Justice for HBCU's
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are having more than a moment, and they are finally getting recognition for the contributions they have made to this country. Their mission has manifested in the development of the next generations of leaders,1 including Vice President Kamala Harris, voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, Senator Raphel Warnock, and White House senior advisor Cedric Richmond, to name a few. HBCUs have always had dynamic faculty to challenge and develop the minds of students, and now we see Howard University continue to build on that legacy with its recent hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehesi Coates. With an increase in enrollment,2 athletic programs hiring former NFL players as football coaches,3 and recruiting top student-athletes,4 the spotlight on HBCUs brings positive press and gifts unlike anything seen in recent years.
HBCUs are engines of upward mobility5 and job creation6 for their graduates, and these recent investments are imperative if the nation is to see progress in racial, social, and economic equity. Yet, many outside the Black community do not know much about these illustrious institutions, how their existence has countered the narrative of White supremacy, and how—despite the effects of discriminatory funding—they have continued to survive for over a century.
A fuller understanding of the history and current financial standing of HBCUs is more important than ever. In the coming months, Congress is expected to consider legislation to invest a trillion dollars in infrastructure, and additional trillions in a Build Back Better plan that, among other things, would support families to be able to afford to enroll7 at community colleges, HBCUs, and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs). The plan also proposes additional support for HBCUs, Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and MSIs to strengthen their academic, administrative, and fiscal capabilities, such as creating or expanding educational programs in high-demand fields (for example, STEM, computer sciences, nursing, and allied health).
Various proposals from legislators and the Biden administration8 are welcome indeed, but given the historic injustices and underinvestment in Black communities specifically and the colleges and universities that serve them, the proposals do not go far enough. Now is the moment for a historic investment that will bring unprecedented resources to HBCUs, giving them the stability and financial independence that will propel them from this moment of recognition to excellence that endures.
This report does not provide the full history of the financial challenges at HBCUs but rather share key historical events that have led to dire inequities in funding to HBCUs, while highlighting the current challenges in funding, and sharing how the proposed higher education investments by the Biden administration can help move the conversation forward and see policy recommendations that close the gap. This report then makes a policy recommendation to ensure HBCUs’ financial stability and continued commitment to academic excellence. More specifically, the federal government should make an unprecedented one-time investment to provide HBCUs with the financial security of a healthy endowment.
For over 150 years, Historically Black College and Universities’ rich legacy pushed the country to address inequalities and strive for a more democratic society. For example, during Reconstruction, when many colleges and universities refused to admit Black men and women because they were deemed inferior, HBCUs provided a pathway to higher learning for African Americans. Despite the grueling challenges formerly enslaved Americans faced from Reconstruction through the Jim Crow era, HBCUs defied the odds, providing African Americans the opportunity to achieve racial uplift, leading to the development of the Black middle class.9 These institutions were founded with a historical mission to educate African Americans, but were not exclusively for African Americans.10 HBCUs have always had talented and diverse faculty11 that help students realize their dreams and change the trajectory of their lives through faculty’s innovative teaching, research opportunities, and mentorship.
While they are often referred to as a collective, HBCUs are not a monolithic group. The 103 institutions were founded by philanthropists, missionary groups, and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. They also vary in institution type, including two-year and four-year schools, private and public colleges and universities, community colleges, teachers colleges, high-research institutions, medical schools, and open-enrollment institutions (see Map 1 and Table 1). Fifty are private four-year colleges, thirty-nine are public four-year colleges, eleven are two-year public colleges, one is a private two-year institution, and two are medical colleges.
Most HBCUs are in the South, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic states. Enrollment at individual HBCUs ranges from the hundreds to the thousands, and as a whole they have a total yearly enrollment of around 300,000.12 The communities in which they reside are also diverse, ranging from urban locations in large cities such as Atlanta, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Washington D.C., to small cities such as Nashville, Tennessee; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Tallahassee, Florida, to rural communities such as those in Marshall, Texas and Orangeburg, South Carolina. HBCUs graduate students from all socioeconomic strata while also providing first-generation, Pell-eligible, low-income students opportunities to receive an education...