After years of inequity, it's time to support historically black colleges

After years of inequity, it's time to support historically black colleges
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In this country, there are 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that enroll almost 300,000 students, around 80 percent of whom are Black and enroll higher numbers of students from low-income families. 

HCBUs have long been a bridge toward more equitable education for people of color, as well as a path to upward mobility. For instance, HBCUs have produced 50 percent of Black teachers — a vital stream for diversifying the teacher workforce. They continue to graduate the largest percentage of Black students with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. They are providing a vital resource not only for their students and communities, but also the economy. 

However, only a handful of HBCUs have endowments that exceed $200 million. Inequitable federal and state funding continues to plague these colleges. This results in HBCU students needing to secure larger federal, state, and private loans than many non-HBCU students, resulting in substantially greater debt upon graduation. It must be acknowledged that in recent years, millions in much-needed philanthropic dollars have made their way to Black colleges in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. On Dec. 12, 2020, Congress finally passed the HBCU Propelling Agency Relationships towards a New Era of Results for Students (HBCU PARTNERS) Act following decades of lobbying efforts by HBCU advocates. Certain federal agencies are now required annually to explain how HBCUs can compete more effectively for contracts and grants. 

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But we cannot allow this momentum to slow down, now is the time for HBCUs to receive the support they deserve as these institutions face compelling and difficult questions in a post pandemic era. How will they evolve and adapt to the serious financial burdens that are likely to linger or worsen, especially at smaller institutions with lower endowments? The influx of millions of dollars from wealthy donors over the past several months has landed at only a handful of schools, most of which are the least financially at risk. What is the likelihood that institutions can ensure safety for students, faculty and staff returning to campus and to dormitories? How can HBCUs handle their serious financial challenges if post pandemic enrollments continue to drop? While the pandemic is certainly not responsible for all of the enrollment and retention challenges at HBCUs, it definitely has exacerbated them. The socioeconomic status of Black families as well as their more serious health issues have also exacerbated the pandemic’s impact in Black communities across America.

In North Carolina, we are using the momentum and bringing together innovative partners to support our ten HBCUs through the NC10 initiative. We are also partnering with other education organizations for the One Million Teachers of Color initiative, which will focus closely on the value of HBCUs in diversifying the educator pipeline. 

I am confident that serious attention to these challenges on HBCU campuses will result in a reimagining of what is possible for students.

McKinsey and Company, in their recently released report, made it clear that HBCUs can accelerate the economic mobility of Black students. Their data show that a strong HBCU network can increase: 

  • The income of Black workers by $10 billion; 
  • Add $1.2 billion in incremental business profit to the economy;
  • Reduce student-loan debt by $300 million; and 
  • Bring in additional consumer expenditures of $1 billion dollars.  

What these numbers tell us is that investing in HBCUs will bring a significant return on investment. But, before we see that ROI, it will require equitable investments now. They will need help with increasing financial stability through alternative funding revenue streams, substantially increasing endowments with more aggressive fundraising among philanthropists and other individual donors (including alumni) and foundations. 

I “grew up” on the campus of an HBCU — Virginia State University (VSU) — where my father was a professor. I also received my master’s degree from VSU and know firsthand the value of these institutions. HBCUs are more than a band, more than a football team, more than Greek life, more than education. Historically Black Colleges and Universities are a place for students to “become.” They carry a legacy with the heritage of more than 180 years of producing some of the nation's top scholars, politicians, athletes, entertainers and individuals. These institutions and their students deserve the support of policymakers and education leaders to ensure their longevity. 

Dr. Javaid Siddiqi is president and CEO of The Hunt Institute. Twitter: @jsiddiqi7