November 17, 2021

The Need to Invest in HBCUs

Monica Konaté
Diversity Programs

Since the creation of the first Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in 1837, HBCUs have played a significant role in educating Black postsecondary students. To date, these institutions represent 3 percent of all colleges and universities but enroll 10 percent of Black undergraduates and award 17 percent of bachelor’s degrees to Black students. For nearly 200 years, HBCUs have provided opportunities at economic advancement for students that have been historically shut out, yet funding for these institutions has lagged behind those that serve predominantly White students. With President Joe Biden’s recent commitment to invest in HBCUs and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) in his Build Back Better proposal, Congress has an opportunity to provide these institutions with the funding necessary to begin to remedy the inequities that have existed for far too long.

Funding for HBCUs is generally derived from three sources. Public funding (federal, state, and local appropriations, grants, and contracts), private funding (gifts, grants, and contracts), and tuition and fees. In terms of federal funds, HBCUs receive a good share of their revenue from Title III of the Higher Education Act (HEA) which provides grants to HBCUs and other MSIs for programs that strengthen academic quality, institutional management, and financial stability. However, though funds are routinely authorized under HEA for Title III programs, Congress doesn’t always provide the level in its spending bills that has been authorized. For example, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, Congress authorized $125 million a year for the Historically Black Graduate Institutions program which provides grants to eligible graduate and professional institutions to increase the number of Black individuals in certain professional fields, but it was only funded at $87 million. In addition, between 2003 and 2015, HBCUs experienced a steeper decline in federal funding per full-time equivalent student as compared to their PWI counterparts.

Even through pervasive underfunding, HBCUs continue to be the premier source of Black excellence and nowhere is that more evident than in the legal profession with their alumni accounting for 80 percent of Black judges and 50 percent of Black attorneys. In terms of the six HBCU law schools, though combined enrollment makes up just 3 percent of law students overall, those numbers account for 19 percent of Black law students.  In addition, between 2009-2014, 43 percent of Black lawyers admitted to practice law in Texas were graduates of Texas Southern, an HBCU.  Indeed, HBCUs provide an avenue for Black individuals to meaningfully participate in recreating what the color of success in America looks like. Still, these institutions continue to be financially neglected receiving 46 cents for every dollar in public funds that go to PWIs.

Underfunding of HBCUs is not a new phenomenon. These institutions are deeply rooted in a time before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 during which African Americans were limited or outright prohibited from attending White institutions of higher learning. This backdrop helps to explain a history of persistent underfunding that existed through the Reconstruction era and Jim Crow’s separate but equal, and that continues today. A history that has resulted in a settlement against the state of Maryland for $577 million for providing inequitable resources to its four HBCUs and a study finding that the state of Tennessee underfunded its only HBCU by over $500 million.

As time moves forward, so must continued attempts to rectify the damage caused by the undervaluing of these institutions. The President’s FY 2022 budget which proposed an additional $600 million for HBCUs and MSIs is a tremendous step forward and acknowledges the critical role that these institutions play in educating students of color. It is now up to Congress to recognize the damage caused by the repeated undervaluing of institutions that serve students of color by increasing and fully funding HBCUs.


Read our letter of support for president Biden’s FY22 budget request.  

Read our comment letter on HBCUs and MSIs to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.