Water cascades from a fountain on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at Southern University in Baton Rouge. (Matthew Perschall for Louisiana Illuminator)
States have engaged in decades of underfunding of land-grant Historically Black Colleges and Universities, leading to a more than $12 billion disparity with comparable white institutions, leaders of the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Monday.
“Unacceptable funding inequities have forced many of our nation’s distinguished Historically Black Colleges and Universities to operate with inadequate resources and delay critical investments in everything from campus infrastructure to research and development to student support services,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.
Cardona and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to each of 16 governors calculating how each state’s land-grant HBCU, established under an 1890 law, has been underfunded per student in state funds from 1987 to 2020.
That figure was arrived at by comparing the HBCU funding to that of land grant institutions that were established in those states for white students in 1862.
Six of those states – Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia – have not participated in one-to-one federal match funding for the 1890 land grant HBCU institutions in recent years, but did so for the 1862 land grant institutions.
The secretaries said that inequitable funding of the 1890 institutions “caused a severe financial gap, in the last 30 years alone.”
The letter follows after lawsuits in several states have alleged discrimination was responsible for decades of underfunding of land grant HBCUs.
“This is a situation that clearly predates all of us,” Vilsack and Cardona wrote in their letter. “However, it is a problem that we can work together to solve. In fact, it is our hope that we can collaborate to avoid burdensome and costly litigation that has occurred in several states.”
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In 2021, the state of Maryland reached a $577 million settlement to end a 15-year-old federal lawsuit that accused the state of providing inequitable resources to its four HBCUs.
Vilsack and Cardona sent a letter to Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat and the first Black governor of the state. They noted that the 1890 land-grant institution in that state, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, “has not been able to advance in ways that are on par with University of Maryland – College Park … in large part due to unbalanced funding.”
If that institution was on equal footing with the 1862 land grant institution, it should have received $321 million in funding over the last 30 years, the secretaries said.
1890 land-grant Institutions are a byproduct of a Civil War-era law that gave land to dozens of universities for white students, through the Morrill Act in 1862, but the land had been forcibly taken from Indigenous tribes. In total, nearly 11 million acres were taken from more than 250 tribes, according to a project published in High Country News.
Because Black Americans were excluded from those institutions, the Second Morrill Act of 1890 was signed into law and established land-grant institutions for Black students. In total, there are 19 land grant HBCUs. Tuskegee University in Alabama is also a land grant, HBCU, but it is a private state-related institution and was not mentioned in the letter to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.
The agencies used data from the National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Survey from 1987 to 2020 to calculate the amount that HBCU land-grant institutions would have received if their state funding per student were equal to the 1862 institutions.
Delaware and Ohio have equitably funded their respective universities, so those governors did not receive a letter, the secretaries said.
Cardona and Vilsack noted to the governors that “it would be ambitious to address the funding disparity over the course of several years in the state budget.”
They suggested, if that is not possible, “a combination of a substantial state allocation toward the 1890 deficit combined with a forward-looking budget commitment for a two-to-one match of federal land-grant funding for these institutions in order to bring parity to funding levels.”
Cardona and Vilsack stressed to the governors they should not reduce funding at other institutions to rectify funding gaps at the land grant HBCUs.
Billions in underfunding in Southern states
States such as Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas have billions in underfunding for the land-grant HBCUs in those states, according to the letter.
North Carolina A&T State University has a $2 billion funding disparity, compared with North Carolina State University at Raleigh, the original Morrill Act of 1862 land grant institution, the letter said.
Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, an 1890 land-grant HBCU, has a $1.9 billion funding gap, according to the letter.
“The longstanding and ongoing underinvestment in Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University disadvantages the students, faculty, and community that the institution serves,” according to the letter. “Furthermore, it may contribute to a lack of economic activity that would ultimately benefit Florida. It is our hope that we can work together to make this institution whole after decades of being underfunded.”
There is currently a class action lawsuit in which FAMU students have alleged racial discrimination in state funding, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
Tennessee State University has a $2.1 billion disparity funding, compared to the University of Tennessee- Knoxville, the 1862 land-grant institution.
Prairie View A&M University in Texas and Southern University and A&M College in Louisiana both have $1.1 billion in underfunding, compared to the 1862 land-grant institutions in their states.
“Unequitable funding of the … institution in your state has caused a severe financial gap, in the last 30 years alone, an additional $1,126,149,248 would have been available for the university,” the letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards reads. “These funds could have supported infrastructure and student services and would have better positioned the university to compete for research grants. Southern University and A&M College has been able to make remarkable strides and would be much stronger and better positioned to serve its students, your state, and the nation if made whole with respect to this funding gap.”
Edwards’ Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne acknowledged receipt of the letter from Cardona and Visack but questioned its data.
“..It is unclear where the number comes from or what it is based on,” Dardenne said in a statement from the governor’s office. “… This administration has consistently provided the federal funding match requirement for Southern University Ag Center as well as the additional funding to stabilize and sustain Southern University New Orleans. However, we recognize that more work needs to be done to fully fund higher education. The governor has directed us to meet with the secretaries to learn more about the underfunding referenced, and we will certainly share this information as part of our transition report to the new administration.”
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The Louisiana Illuminator contributed to this report.
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