The target on HBCUs' back

"If you can't give away $70 million, then I'm not going to try to," said North Carolina State Sen. Tom Apodaca (R), as reported in the The (Raleigh) News & Observer, referring to the outcry over North Carolina's Senate Bill 873. If enacted as originally drafted, S.B. 873 would have capped tuition at $500 per year for in-state students (and $2,500 for out-of-state students) for five North Carolina public universities.

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To make up for the lost tuition revenues, the bill stipulated that the institutions would receive $70 million. Details were vague. And the bill targeted only five University of North Carolina (UNC) colleges: three Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University and Winston-Salem University — one Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution (NASNTI), UNC Pembroke, and one Primarily White Institution (PWI), Western Carolina University.

Ostensibly, the bill sought to boost enrollment at these institutions by making them less expensive. Upon scrutiny, the North Carolina Senate bill looks more like political posturing cloaked in the veil of access and affordability.

Though vociferous protest led to a new proposal that would drop the three HBCUs from the bill, S.B. 873 is instructive for North Carolina's and other state governments' approach to its HBCUs and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). It's a legislative maneuver to restrict funding while continuing to lower annual appropriations. Like similar measures, the bill would effectively deprive the institutions of a substantial amount of their primary revenue streams.

Apodaca does address a critical issue: College now costs more than a family of modest means can afford out of pocket. Yet his approach to combating college affordability disregards the complexity of college finance. States have largely disinvested in public higher education, a trend that began decades ago yet accelerated in the previous two recessions.

Tuition today comprises a larger portion of public institutions' core revenues. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), educational appropriations per  full-time equivalent (FTE) in North Carolina public colleges and universities declined by 23 percent between 2000 and 2015 ($10,590 to $8,109). During the same time span, net tuition revenue per FTE increased by 71 percent ($2,446 to $4,178). Clearly, then, any college facing a tuition cap will be concerned despite a vague promise from the state to backfill lost revenues. Measures aimed solely at sticker price neglect a host of other finance issues.

If reducing tuition to increase enrollment was the motivating policy concern, targeting these five institutions makes little sense. Western Carolina University is at roughly the UNC average tuition level for undergraduates ($6,300). Yet the three HBCUs are amongst the least expensive in the state. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the in-state published tuition and fees for full-time, first-time undergraduate students at Elizabeth City State University was $4,498, $4,655 at Fayetteville State University and $5,583 at Winston-Salem State University. UNC Pembroke, a NASNTI, was $5,287.

Another concern is why state legislators singled out these five institutions, four of which are MSIs. For example, UNC Asheville (a PWI) had a fall 2014 enrollment of full-time undergraduate students of 3,183. This is less than two of the HBCUs included in the bill (Fayetteville with 3,935 and Winston-Salem with 4,098). UNC Pembroke's enrollment was 4,400. It also doesn't explain why Western Carolina was included, with an enrollment of 7,373, never mind that its enrollment has been steadily increasing each year since 2008. Why not target North Carolina State University in Raleigh (a PWI)? Its enrollment has steadily declined since 2010. Why are HBCUs and MSIs the target?

S.B. 873 is only the most recent legislative proposal targeting HBCUs and MSIs. In 2013, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) proposed closing and merging HBCUs, as well as eliminating academic programs. North Carolina is not alone in state governments using HBCUs as a quick fix to cut costs. The governors of Louisiana and Mississippi suggested the merging of HBCUs, while in 2015 Georgia merged HBCU Albany State with non-HBCU Darton State. Again, why are HBCUs targeted?

Apodaca and policymakers in states who at first sight of stormy economic weather hoist HBCUs and other MSIs on the budgetary chopping block neglect the pivotal mission these institutions serve in fulfilling statewide priorities (including degree attainment and workforce productivity). In our 2014 report on public HBCUs, we found that North Carolina's five public HBCUs awarded 3,706 degrees to African-American students in 2011. This was far more than the total amount for all PWIs in the state that year (2,507). North Carolina's five public HBCUs conferred 60 percent of bachelor's degrees from public institutions to African-Americans in the state. If there is easily accessible evidence that HBCUs contribute in these important ways, why are they targeted?

Additionally, enrollment grew in most four-year public institutions between 2001 and 2011 in North Carolina. Overall public HBCU enrollment grew by 42 percent, compared to 27 percent at PWIs. More specifically, the black student population increased by 39 percent in North Carolina HBCUs.

What policymakers in many states such as North Carolina seem to ignore is that their populations are rapidly changing. In North Carolina, more than 35 percent of the state's citizens are people of color and that percentage is growing. HBCUs and MSIs continue to best serve these populations of students who will comprise the future of public postsecondary education in the U.S. Our state leaders must commit to funding these institutions at an adequate and equitable level rather than targeting them for systemic elimination.

Boland is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.