LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Optimism for transformational funding for the nation’s historically Black colleges was running high after the Biden administration included $45 billion for the schools in its massive multitrillion dollar spending plan.
That outlook quickly soured as the funding became ensnared in Democratic infighting over the size of the economic package and what it should cover. The latest iteration of the bill includes just $2 billion that can go toward educational programs and infrastructure for Black colleges, and even that amount would be reduced to competitive grant funding rather than direct allocations.
That's especially disappointing for many smaller, private historically Black colleges that don't have the endowments as their larger and more well-known peers. They often struggle to upgrade their campuses and programs, hurting their ability to attract students.
The Biden administration's original $3.5 trillion proposal called for sending at least $45 billion to Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions to update their research programs, create incubators to help students innovate and help traditionally underserved populations.
Getting a slice of that would have been a boon to Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, a private historically Black college. President Roderick L. Smothers said federal coronavirus relief money was instrumental in helping the university survive the pandemic with technology upgrades and student support, but he said Biden's original proposal provided the kind of money that would have had a long-term impact.
“We used the funds that we received to serve the students that we have, and now we’re asking for additional funds to make sure that when we are on the other side of this global pandemic our institutions will be bigger and better and more resilient,” Smothers said.
The college increased its enrollment by 43% between 2010 and 2019, the latest data available, but saw its endowment drop 18% during the same timeframe, according to federal data analyzed by The Associated Press. Overall, enrollment at the nation's roughly 102 Black colleges has been declining — from 326,827 in 2010 to 289,507 in 2019.
Beyond building upgrades, Smothers said Philander Smith College would have used the long-term federal funding to expand programs for its students, 81% of which are low income. That might include launching a public health school that would train students to tackle health disparities affecting racial minorities and help address the state's nursing shortage.
Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, who leads the U.S. House education committee, said historically Black colleges have received unprecedented levels of federal funding over the past two years, more than they have in the past decade combined. That includes $1.6 billion under the Democrats' American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year.
The money has allowed them to pursue initiatives such as cancelling student debt during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scott, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the draft bill also includes $27 billion for student aid at Black colleges and other institutions serving racial minorities. Still, he acknowledged the need for more funding.
“We’d like to do as much as we can,” Scott said. “I’m not satisfied. I’m not satisfied with anything in the budget that’s within our jurisdiction."
Scott said the Department of Education had committed to ensuring the grant program contained in the current bill would be structured so similar colleges would be competing with each other. It's a way to prevent larger ones with robust grant-writing departments from edging out smaller schools.
That's important to address vast differences between the colleges. The Associated Press analysis of enrollment and endowment data found wide disparities among the 102 historically Black colleges and universities, and a further divide between private and public institutions. Federal data, for example, showed that 11 HBCUs had endowments worth less than $1,000 per pupil in the 2018-19 school year while nine had endowments worth more than $50,000 per pupil.
In general, Black colleges have lacked the fundraising ability of other universities. The cumulative endowment for all historical Black colleges through 2019 was a little more than $3.9 billion, about the same as the endowment for just the University of Minnesota. Advocates said the funding struggles and the role the colleges have played historically is why long-term federal assistance is needed.
Harry L. Williams, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents public HBCUs, was surprised and disappointed by the reduced allocation for Black colleges in the latest Democratic economic plan, which likely will be trimmed to around $2 trillion. He also said they should not be lumped in with other institutions serving racial minorities, which he said can include many large state universities.
Black colleges have a unique history, needs and financial challenges, Williams said.
Kevin Cosby, president of Simmons College of Kentucky in Louisville, agrees.
“To mix them with minority-serving institutions, which are are not historic institutions that do not have the legacy of historic discrimination, is not right,” he said. “Historically Black colleges and universities should be separated as a protected class of institutions because, like the Black community, our experience in the United States of America is a unique experience.”
Because of historical underfunding, Black colleges often have built up years of deferred maintenance, leaving buildings out of compliance with local codes or otherwise unable to accommodate students. Money from endowment returns is directed to annual operating costs, making it harder to invest in new programs and buildings — a “number one issue” for attracting students, Cosby said.
Last spring, Kentucky’s general assembly passed long-awaited legislation that made it possible for his school to have a certified teacher program. The initiative is especially meaningful to Simmons because of the state's persistent teacher shortage and the school's founding mission to train formerly enslaved Kentuckians as teachers. But Cosby said not having longer-term funding from the federal government will make it more difficult for Simmons to get the program off the ground quickly.
“We need facility space, we need infrastructure, we need capital improvements, we need resources to hire teachers,” he said. “We can only thrive as institutions to the degree that we have the resources.”
Hudspeth Blackburn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Ma covers education and equity for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/anniema15
The Associated Press’ reporting around issues of race and ethnicity is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.