Community or Funding: How American Universities Are Failing Black Students

It’s a warm and sunny day in late March, a time when senioritis has fully set in for most students awaiting their graduation. Your college application results come out tonight and you know that you will either go to sleep tonight feeling absolutely triumphant or rejected. You fidget through math and history class and hardly touch your lunch. By the time last period rolls around, you can’t concentrate on anything for more than a minute. When the dismissal bell rings at 3 pm, you’re practically sprinting out of the door to the parking lot and you barely register that kid that you ran over on your way out of class. You make a mental note to apologize when you’re in a better state of mind. You race home, easily going 20 miles over the speed limit. You know you have a couple more hours to wait before the decisions come out, but you wanted to be ready just in case. The time creeps by exceptionally slowly. You pace back and forth in your living room, stress eat those brownies your mom made three days ago, and even try tackling that laundry you’ve put off for two weeks. When the time finally rolls around you already have your laptop on, actively refreshing the university’s portal. You take a breath before hitting the refresh button one last time and… you did it! You got into Georgetown! This would be a great place to get the connections and internships you need to make it to a top ten law school. After you take some time to shriek in joy with your parents, call your friends, and scream the news to your neighbors in your cul-de-sac, a sense of immense relief washes over you. Then the weight of your looming decision comes crashing down. You found out last week that you got into Howard University, and you’ve wanted to go there since sophomore year of high school. Georgetown has universal name recognition and would provide great resources for the future, but you want to immerse yourself in Black culture and for once feel included in an academic space. Which will you choose?

This is a conundrum that many Black students contend with: Historically Black College/University (HBCU) or Predominately White Institution (PWI)? This binary establishes a troubling dilemma for Black students. Many feel that they are deciding between the socio-cultural and racial inclusion that HBCUs can offer and the prestige and access to resources that accompany many PWIs.

An HBCU is defined as “…any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency…” A PWI is a university with 50% or more enrollment of White students, but the term is often used as a catch-all for all schools that are “historically White” such as the Universities of California .

PWIs often have funding and resources that make them attractive options. Julian Miller is a Sophomore at James Madison University (JMU), a PWI in Virginia. He grew up in a predominately White suburb and when the time came to decide whether to attend an HBCU or a PWI, Julian was conflicted. He wanted to attend Howard, an acclaimed private HBCU in Washington, D.C., but his tour of the university left him questioning Howard’s administrative capabilities. Julian says, “When I visited Howard, I really wanted to go there, but the facilities were not as nice and before [the visit] the admissions office was all out of order and it was frustrating.” When asked about where JMU is succeeding as an institution, Julian says that they “give me a good area to learn and grow in the field I decided to study in.” But, he also says that they fail in “diversity as whole.” He mentioned taking multiple classes centered around the Black Lives Matter movement and Black literature, but they were all taught by White instructors. He wanted to “learn from someone who has had the same experiences” and could “share what they learned and went through.” The lack of Black faculty left Julian questioning, “Why don’t Black lives matter enough for [the administration] to recruit Black professors and teachers?”

As an African American attending UC Berkeley, I empathize with the students at non-HBCUs. Cal provides a world-class education, accomplished faculty, and an abundance of competition, but it is still lacking in important areas for Black students. There are so few Black bodies on campus that I’ve been the only Black student in a 200 person lecture. Beyond that, prejudice also looms here, despite Berkeley’s liberal and tolerant reputation. In my first semester alone, I was asked to teach someone “Black slang” (whatever that is), told that it was easier for Black people to get into college, and strongly compelled to send a Huffington Post article aptly titled “Stop Saying N***a If You’re Not Black” to my dorm floor’s group chat. Ultimately, if an inclusive and “color-blind” utopia doesn’t exist here at Cal, the self-proclaimed home of progressivism, it probably doesn’t exist anywhere for Black students outside of HBCUs.

Still, many PWIs like Harvard University have made a concerted push towards diversification and inclusion. According to Time Magazine, Harvard’s class of 2021 was comprised mainly of minorities for the first time since its founding. The breakdown of this year’s freshman class is impressive: 22.2% are Asian, 14.6% are African American, 11.6% are Latino and 2.5% are Native American or Pacific Islander. Some schools also have programs geared towards serving underrepresented groups and providing support. Examples of these programs at UC Berkeley include the Educational Opportunity Program and the Centers for Equity and Inclusion. The groups provide academic counseling and grant conditional priority status for housing amongst other services. These programs are a step in the right direction, but they do not change the fact that Black students are severely underrepresented around campus. In 2014, Black students made up 14 percent of the undergraduates in American colleges, a respectable amount considering America’s overall Black population of 13.3 percent in 2016. But when spread out among all American schools, the numbers of Black bodies on campuses can get shockingly low. Black students make up a measly 3 percent of the student population here at Berkeley while the population of Black people in California is approximately 6.5 percent. James Madison University’s student body is 4.68 percent Black compared to Virginia’s 20 percent Black population. Ultimately, these attempts by PWIs just aren’t enough for some Black students.

Kyle Mells who is currently a freshman at Howard University, says that for him, the choice was clear. Mells grew up in a White upper-middle class neighborhood in Southeastern Virginia. When asked why he chose to attend an HBCU over a PWI, Kyle said, “I’ve been around White people for so much of my life and experienced White teachers telling me about myself and my culture. I felt a disconnect.” At Howard, Kyle feels he is surrounded by faculty and peers that “look like him, talk like him, and go through the same struggles as him in America.” Kyle’s case is not isolated. Many Black students, especially those who grew up in White-suburban areas, feel that HBCUs are the best option for them to experience a sense of racial inclusion. Julian and Kyle chose different universities, but they grappled with the same core issues. According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, approximately 20 percent of African Americans who earn undergraduate degrees get them from HBCUs, despite the institutions making up only 3 percent of America’s total colleges and universities. HBCUs serve disproportionately high numbers of students, but this is not at all surprising considering the challenges that Black students often face in majority White environments. Being Black in a White space can be degrading, uncomfortable, and disheartening. Kyle states that growing up, he experienced “not-so-micro” aggressions like being the “token Black friend” and often found himself longing for an environment that allowed his full expression of self.

HBCUs are great places for socio-cultural enrichment, but recent decades have brought grueling challenges for the institutions. Increased enrollment, while desirable, has put a strain on HBCUs that were already beyond capacity. Coupled with unequal funding and administrations lacking in personnel, the universities are having a hard time meeting the demands of the current academic landscape. Chris Moses, a graduate of HBCU Virginia State University, commented that while he had an enjoyable college experience, he felt that the university did not academically prepare him to the level of some of his peers. He said that while attending pre-med conferences with his fellow Biology Majors from PWIs, “They just knew things I didn’t [learn].” Kyle reports similarly. When asked about Howard’s administration and funding, he said both are “horrible.”

This is not surprising considering the egregious state funding disparities between public HBCUs and many public PWIs. According to the Association of Public and Land Grant, the Morrill Act of 1862 was passed to educate the working class in practical skills pertaining to agriculture and and mechanics. At the time, most American universities were private and only served the children of the upper-class. The act was meant to change that by providing accessible education for lower income students. However, African Americans were still trapped in slavery and were not included in the act’s provisions. Nearly three decades later, the Morrill Act of 1890 was passed which established land-grant schools that were explicitly meant to serve Black students. Public institutions like the University of Florida and Virginia Tech are the result of the 1862 act and public HBCUs like North Carolina A&T State University and Virginia State University, where Moses (VSU) went, are the products of the 1890 act. Both are supposed to receive equal funding, but that is simply not the case. Federal funding for research and extension programs are available to all land-grant institutions, but the state must “match” the funding in order for the university to receive it (often called one-to-one matching). States often meet the requirements for one-to-one matching for their 1862 land-grant institutions, but not their 1890 land-grant universities. In other words, states pay the amount required to receive funding for their PWIs, but not their HBCUs. As a result, the APLU reports that between 2010-2012, 61 percent of 1890 land-grant HBCUs did not receive 100 percent of the one to-one-matching funds from their respective states for extension or research funding. Big picture, the 1890 land-grant HBCUs did not receive a combined $57 million in funding because their states did not match it. Overall, HBCUs are simply not prioritized for funding in the same way as other institutions and that has real consequences for students.

And that’s just the public universities. HBCUs are meant to educate Black Americans who often come from under-served and under-prioritized communities. This is illustrated by the fact that more than 75 percent of HBCU students rely on Pell Grants to pay for school. To ensure that education is accessible to their students, many private HBCUs sport relatively low tuition and provide substantial financial aid to many students . Howard’s tuition without financial aid (both in-state and out-of-state), for example, is $23,970 compared to Northwestern’s $49,047 figure (again for both in-state and out-of-state). Private HBCUs are forced to keep a precarious balance: make tuition high enough to maintain the quality of the institution, but low enough to ensure that it’s affordable for the Black Americans they are intended to serve. Furthermore, elite private universities have enormous endowments. In 2016, Harvard and Princeton had endowments that measured at a jaw-dropping $36.4 billion and $22.7 billion respectively. Howard University has the largest endowment of any HBCU at $587 million, a small fraction of some of their private PWI counterparts. Private universities gain their endowments mainly through donations from individuals who receive tax breaks for their generosity. Take Princeton University alumnus and former Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman as an example. She gifted over $30 million to Princeton’s endowment fund and got a $10 million tax break. HBCUs don’t have the large numbers of billionaire donors that prestigious PWIs have. As a result, they aren’t receiving the millions in donations that other universities get which leads to huge discrepancies in the amount of resources available to students. Public or private, HBCUs are struggling and there doesn’t seem to be any help coming soon.

In the end, choosing to attend an HBCU or a PWI comes down to the individual, and the Black experience is not a monolith. Many students feel that their universities excel in some aspects, but not others. There are also some Black students who find that their PWI or HBCU fulfills all of their needs completely. This is the ideal situation, but still Black students find themselves asking, “What am I willing to give up in order to gain what I want?” all too often. Expecting Black students to choose between the sense of belonging that HBCUs offer and the possible resources and funding of PWIs is absolutely unacceptable. It is an added burden to an already stressful process and can have serious consequences whatever the decision. Unsurprisingly, solutions to these issues are complex. It’s clear that PWIs need to focus on Black recruitment and retention, states need to prioritize funding for public HBCUs, and the discrepancies in private HBCU and PWI funding needs to be addressed. But, how? The problem requires multifaceted and creative approaches. Fixing one part of the poorly functioning higher education machine will not address students’ needs sufficiently. The fate of funding for HBCUs and racial inclusivity for PWIs is murky, but one thing is abundantly clear: American Universities are failing Black students.