© 2024 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

HBCUs have been underfunded for decades. A history of higher education tells us why


The state of facilities at historically Black colleges and universities, also known as HBCUs, again made headlines in recent weeks. Student protests broke out at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Fla., over unsanitary conditions, as well as mold and rat-infested dorms. Adam Harris is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He's also the author of "The State Must Provide: A Narrative History Of Racial Inequality In Higher Education." And he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ADAM HARRIS: Thanks so much for having me.

RASCOE: So I feel like we've been here before. Howard University students held protests there in 2021 over poor campus housing conditions. So how big of an issue is this for HBCUs nationwide?

HARRIS: Yeah, so there was a report that came out not too long ago, from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. It's a group that focuses on historically Black colleges that looked at the deferred maintenance on historically Black campuses. And they said that, on average, HBCUs have about $81 million in deferred maintenance. But these institutions have been subject to years of discrimination and funding, whether that's funding from the state or private philanthropy.

RASCOE: Oftentimes, when these issues come up, people will go, well, why don't the alumni just give them some money? Why are they having these problems?

HARRIS: Interestingly, I think that typified a sort of misunderstanding about Black colleges, that the reason why they don't have the nicer things or that they have the maintenance issues is because of financial mismanagement, it's because their alumni don't give. And some of that, of course, stems from the way that the institutions have historically been covered - right? - only going to HBCUs is when there are issues or when bad things happen, and some of it is simply people being misinformed about the way that colleges are structured, right? A lot of colleges have issues with alumni giving. And in fact, Black alumni typically, percentagewise, give more than other races.

RASCOE: Well, let's get into that. Like, are they still being underfunded, even if they're a state school?

HARRIS: There are a couple of different classifications of HBCUs, even within the state schools, right? So you have the land grant institutions that, for years, have been supposed to receive a match from the federal government, that they would receive from this federal land grant that was established in 1890. And several institutions have not been receiving that match of land grant funds. You know, a recent investigation by Forbes show that there were more than $10 billion in outstanding funds that were owed to the Black land grant institution.

RASCOE: Don't some states have, like, performance-based funding, where, if you have better graduation rates or if you have, you know, more students, you receive more money? But then if you are an HBCU and you've already been discriminated against, then you're not getting as much money because you're not, "performing as well," quote, unquote.

HARRIS: Yeah. States sometimes will build in factors, things like, you know, six-year graduation rate. I think about a state like Kentucky, right? In the 1940s, President Harry Truman called together a group of people to put together a report on higher education for American democracy. And they found that Kentucky discriminated against its Black students in its Black colleges at a rate that was sort of astronomical compared to the rest of the country - 42-1 funding for white students in white colleges compared to Black students in Black colleges. And you push that out into today, where just recently in the last couple of years, you've had lawmakers who said, well, if Kentucky State can't manage its funds, the historically Black college in Frankfort, then maybe they should close. Maybe this shouldn't be an institution anymore. But that's almost, like, penalizing somebody who you just robbed.

RASCOE: And you've talked about this a little bit, but I really would love to make it plain the role that these historically Black colleges play in African-American life. I'm a graduate of Howard University. I'm a product of that school. Both of my siblings, my mama, everybody, we went to HBCUs in North Carolina, where there are so many of them. So can you talk about the role that they play?

HARRIS: Yeah. So HBCUs, of course, are institutions that were founded predominantly after the Civil War to educate Black students who had been shut out from the rest of higher education, received its official designation as HBCUs in the 1960s. But even today, they are still doing an outsized share of work in producing educators and producing STEM graduates and producing Black doctors and Ph.D.s. So these are still institutions that are providing a vital service and deserve to be celebrated for the service that they provide and provide them with the funds that they have so long withheld from them.

RASCOE: So, I mean, is that the remedy and is there the political will to do something about this funding?

HARRIS: Over the last couple of years, you've seen several states, thanks to lawsuits in some cases, start to own up to part of the role that they've played. So I think that states are now realizing that they have underfunded these institutions. There needs to be some recourse for that. The question is whether they will sort of do the stopgap measure to sort of appease the institutions for a small bit of time or whether they will actually owe up to what they actually owe the institutions.

RASCOE: That's journalist Adam Harris, author of "The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal And How To Set Them Right." Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

HARRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
More from Hawai‘i Public Radio