Chronically Underfunded HBCUs Eye Scholarships in Biden Bill

By Janet Lorin

The sprawling Build Back Better Act contains a provision that would be transformative for a set of historically Black colleges and universities: tens of millions of dollars in annual long-term funding for scholarships.

The fate of President Biden’s social spending bill remains uncertain. But the inclusion of these dollars in the legislation is a hopeful sign for lawmakers and college administrators who have been working to snare this recurring stream of public money for schools that were deprived for decades of other government dollars they were owed.

Photo by Charlotte May from Pexels

A contingent of almost 20 land-grant colleges, including Tennessee State University and Florida A&M University, is supposed to receive state funding that matches federal allocations. But some of these HBCUs have gone decades without getting a full state contribution, leaving them with decaying campuses even as flagship public schools were lavished with financial resources.

They’ve been emboldened to call out the ways they were shortchanged: a recent budget analyst’s report in Tennessee found the state had chronically underfunded TSU by as much as $544 million dating back to 1957. And they are now chasing more reliable channels of public financial support to help them serve the largely low-income population of students who attend.

“We can’t solve all the problems of the last 180 years in one bill or one piece of legislation, however we can take tangible steps such that we’re moving toward more progress this year than we were a decade ago,” said Paul Brathwaite, a lobbyist with Federal Street Strategies who works on behalf of the colleges. “We are in a racial equity moment.”

Decades of Inequities

This cluster of HBCUs dates to 1890, when an act of Congress established them to offer an option for Black students in the South who found themselves unwelcome at other state schools. Like land-grant colleges created decades earlier, the HBCUs had an agricultural focus. Given that mission, some of their federal funds come from the Agriculture Department.

States have an obligation to match those dollars. But while federal law holds them to a one-to-one match for other public universities, it allows a waiver system for this subset of so-called “1890 schools,” in which states can skip kicking in their full share. In many cases, due to inattention by generations of mostly white lawmakers, that is exactly what happened.

At Prairie View A&M University near Houston, the state of Texas declined to allocate the school about $46 million between 2011 and 2020, according to Agriculture Department data. Florida A&M should have received $19.5 million over the same time period, according to the Agriculture Department and school. A 2013 report from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities gives a sense of how much support these institutions have missed out on: From 2010 to 2012 alone, the 1890 schools collectively forwent $57 million from their states.

In Tennessee, an effort to identify the scope of funding deprivation to its public HBCU took place in half a dozen statehouse hearings. State Representative Harold Love Jr., a Democrat, co-chaired the sessions with a Republican colleague. Love had already pored over old state budgets that showed TSU had not gotten its full funding. He knew where to direct the budget analysts, and he knew the underfunding had serious consequences for the school.

Without sufficient financial resources, “it makes it hard to recruit faculty and even harder to recruit students. You’re competing with other colleges in the state with modern facilities,” said Love, a TSU alumnus who holds a legislative seat once occupied by his father.

Indeed, TSU facilities in Nashville badly need updating. Some of the agricultural facilities are outdated, including a poultry laying house that was built in the 1970s with now-obsolete technology.

“High schools have better facilities,” said Chandra Reddy, dean of the agriculture school and a soil scientist.

In the hearings, Love was able to illustrate vividly just how long this issue had gone ignored. He presented a 1970 state report that he had found in his late father’s files that detailed many of the inequities the school faced, pointing out they persist more than fifty years later.

The hearings presented the tantalizing possibility that Tennessee might be moved to do something dramatic to make up for the decades of money TSU missed out on. Yet, so far, it appears only to have raised awareness and led to a list of state recommendations for campus building repairs that total $337.5 million. Funding will be considered in next year’s budget, and it is uncertain if lawmakers have appetite to make such an allocation, at least in one fell swoop, Love said.

The school has received its full state matching funding since fiscal 2016. The governor’s office said TSU received $16.4 million for capital maintenance in the 2021-2022 budget, as well as $4.1 million for salaries and other programs.

New Pools of Money

The federal scholarships offer new pools money while avoiding the state governments that have shown themselves to be undependable partners to the 1890 schools. These awards were initially included in the 2018 Farm Bill, which gave the schools about $80 million over four years to encourage students to pursue undergraduate degrees in food and agricultural sciences and related fields.

Now, Representative David Scott, a Georgia Democrat and the first Black chairman of the Agriculture Committee, has sought to make that money recurring, like Social Security. The idea is to eliminate the burden and uncertainty caused by having to routinely ask for more appropriations.

Scott’s bill, which would make the scholarships permanent, has advanced out of the Agriculture Committee. The version attached to Biden’s signature social spending legislation provides for money through at least fiscal 2031. Moderates in the Senate may demand cuts in that approximately $2 trillion bill, so the HBCU scholarships could end up on the chopping block.

If the Build Back Better Act doesn’t pass or this provision is stripped, the permanent scholarship funding could still move through the regular Congressional process or be considered in future legislation such as the next Farm Bill in 2023.

The scholarships don’t fund traditional infrastructure improvements, so don’t they solve some of the core challenges facing public HBCUs, nor do they directly offset the decades of unissued state matching funds.

But the money has the potential to help in other ways. Many students at this group of HBCUs come from low-income families, and the scholarships might mean they don’t have to work to put themselves through school. That, in turn, could help boost graduation rates, which lag the national average. Today, only 11% of students at TSU graduate within four years, and 37% do so in eight years, according to federal data.

Not Giving Up

As they press the importance of the scholarship bill, the 1890 schools are also not giving up on getting the state matching funds they are owed.

“It’s an important issue that shouldn’t go away,” said Makola Abdullah, the president of Virginia State University who chairs a council of leaders of 1890 schools.

At the same time, the schools are grappling with the likelihood that the surge of donations they received in 2020 amid outcry over the murder of George Floyd could be a one-off infusion.

Recurring funding would put the HBCUs at greater competitive advantage to recruit and retain faculty as well as support better graduation rates and stronger job placement, said Emily Wadhwani, senior director of U.S. public finance at Fitch Ratings.

“Permanent funding is the only real way to have a meaningful impact,” Wadhwani said.

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