Even today, in this time of racial awakening, many white Americans continue to ask the same demeaning question about historically Black colleges and universities that they did a decade ago and in the decade before that: With the end of Jim Crow and the integration of college campuses, does the country still really need HBCUs?

What a loaded question. No one asks “Do we still need Black churches?” Everyone recognizes the powerful contributions that Black churches have made and continue to make to Black communities and the nation. HBCUs do exactly the same.

Like Black churches, the nation’s 101 HBCUs are integral to predominantly Black communities, part of the history of virtually every Black family with a college graduate. No institution has been a brighter beacon for upward mobility for Black Americans. And no institution is currently better positioned to bring about a new age of Black achievement.

By contrast, most of white America knows little or nothing about HBCUs, past or present. Relatively few white Americans have ever set foot on an HBCU campus, and not many more personally know HBCU graduates or have talked to them about their college experience. A minority may have heard of a few storied HBCUs, such as Howard University, Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, Hampton University, and Fisk University, or perhaps they know that Grambling State University was a longtime football powerhouse.

In my work as the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), which has 37 member HBCUs, I have seen well-intentioned white ignorance and canards about HBCUs play out repeatedly over the past two decades. Even many progressive white Americans remain strangely unaware of the central role that HBCUs continue to play in Black communities.

This ignorance has profound ramifications. Unlike most predominantly white institutions of higher education, HBCUs face systemic discrimination—from state and federal governments, from philanthropists, from lenders, and from school accreditors. The problem is not merely one of benign neglect. In many cases, HBCUs and their students face active hostility. Thankfully, today, perhaps for the first time, the impact of the disparate treatment of HBCUs and their students can be quantified and exposed.

From my perch at UNCF, and as the former president of Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans, I am newly hopeful that America’s recent racial reckoning may mean that tired myths about HBCUs can finally be put to rest. But as someone who has witnessed the persistence of discrimination and racism across many decades, I am wary, too—wary that only the rhetoric of race may change.

Real change would be deeper. Real change would be a fundamental—and dramatic—increase in support for HBCUs from federal and state officials, philanthropists, and the nonprofit regional accreditors of HBCUs. At the top of the post–George Floyd agenda for justice for Black college students should be doubling the dollar value of Pell Grant awards for low-income-student scholarships, and other far-reaching measures to redress the discriminatory underfunding of HBCUs. I find it heartening that President Joe Biden committed to doubling Pell Grants and investing $70 billion in HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions during his campaign. These expenditures are less a cost than an essential, overdue investment. If they come through, America could soon see an era of Black progress, and greater racial equality. This could be a new chapter of the American story.

Students on campus in 1960 at Fisk Universit​y in Nashville.
Fisk Universit​y in Nashville, Tenn, 1960 (George​ Tames / The New York Times / Redux)

HBCUs are much more than schools. They are places where Black students can feel safe, welcomed, and embraced by the college community. And that’s why students keep enrolling. Contrary to public perception, as recently as 2017, enrollment was rising at HBCUs overall, while most sectors of higher education saw enrollment declines. Yet the bromide that HBCUs are dying out persists. After President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation to provide STEM funding for HBCUs, he claimed in January 2020, “I saved HBCUs … they were going out, and we saved them.” In fact, from 2016 to 2018, roughly one in three HBCUs had record levels of enrollment.

Students enrolling at HBCUs are joining a great tradition. The honor roll of Black Americans who graduated from HBCUs is without parallel in all of postsecondary education.

The late, great congressman John Lewis attended an HBCU. So did many leaders of the civil-rights movement—Martin Luther King Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Andrew Young. Vice President Kamala Harris is a proud Howard graduate, and Georgia’s newly elected U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock attended King’s alma mater, Morehouse.

The first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, attended an HBCU, Lincoln University, as an undergraduate, before going on to Howard Law, where he began to formulate the legal strategy that led to the Court striking down school-segregation laws in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

HBCUs have also been a fount of legendary Black authors, intellectuals, and artists, including Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. The actor Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed a series of Black male heroes before his untimely death last year, earned his degree at Howard.

Yet more important than their famous alumni is the Black middle and upper-middle class, which HBCUs have almost single-handedly created. HBCUs have produced more than 80 percent of Black judges, 40 percent of Black Congress members, and roughly half of Black public-school teachers. More than 70 percent of Black doctors and dentists earn their bachelor’s degree at HBCUs.

Half a century ago, more than a third of all Black undergraduates enrolled in HBCUs. Today, with the widespread integration of university and college campuses, that number is down to just under 10 percent. Nevertheless, HBCUs continue to have a disproportionate impact on the growth of the Black middle class, producing almost 20 percent of Black college graduates and more than 25 percent of Black STEM-degree holders. Within a decade of obtaining a degree from an HBCU, the average graduate earns $71,000 annually, UNCF research shows.

The oversize return of an HBCU education occurs even though HBCUs enroll mostly low-income and first-generation students. For example, 40 percent of all HBCU students in 2016–17 were the first in their family to enroll in college. In a 2017 study by the Education Trust, all four-year HBCUs had a freshman class that was at least 40 percent low-income, and roughly half of HBCUs had a freshman class where three-quarters of the students come from low-income backgrounds.According to the Education Trust, graduation rates at HBCUs are six percentage points higher than at their non-HBCU peers “serving similar populations.”

HBCUs are engines of social mobility especially in the 21 states and territories where they are located, the majority of which are in the South. Louisiana HBCUs produce nearly 40 percent of all Black bachelor’s-degree holders in the state; in Virginia, HBCUs produce about a third of Black college graduates. On average, in 2014 HBCUs provided 6,400 jobs and generated more than $700 million in economic value in their home states.

How is it that HBCUs in 2021 punch above their weight in educating Black Americans? One thing is clear: HBCUs’ superior outcomes with low-income, minority students are not because HBCUs are well funded. Since their inception, HBCUs have been starved of resources, first by Jim Crow lawmakers who wanted Black colleges to remain inferior to all-white colleges, and later by wealthy white philanthropists who almost always donated to Ivy League colleges, state flagship research universities, and their own predominantly white alma maters.

The success stems instead from an animating insight that the founders of HBCUs had, far ahead of their time. Today many scholars and pundits extol the benefits of social and emotional learning, but HBCU founders were onto this more than a century ago, recognizing that specific noncognitive skills—perseverance, self-control, the ability to defer gratification, punctuality, etc.—were usually as important in determining success in the workplace as book smarts, test scores, and gilded college campuses.

Senior Preparatory Class, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, early 1900s.
A senior preparatory class at Fisk University in the early 1900s (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group / Getty)

W. E. B. Du Bois, who attended Fisk and later Harvard, summarized the difference between the two universities by observing, “At Fisk, we had [character] dinned into our ears. At Harvard we never mentioned it.” When I arrived at Morehouse as a freshman in 1964, we heard every day in chapel that we were expected, as “Morehouse men,” to be leaders, like our most famous alumnus, Martin Luther King Jr.

In subsequent decades, HBCUs inevitably became less prescriptive about student behavior and character, but they continued to build the habits of mind that empower students to succeed, even while struggling to find adequate funding for maintaining dormitories, university labs, and other campus facilities.

That education typically begins the moment students set foot on an HBCU campus. The college president, faculty members, and other academic advisers monitor the progress of each student. If students don’t show up for class or do poorly on a quiz, their counselor will call to make sure they are using the school’s support services. At HBCUs, many professors sweat the small stuff and still take attendance. In general, faculty and students share a much closer connection at HBCUs than elsewhere in American higher education.

As Morgan State University’s president, David Wilson, has put it, HBCUs practice the art of “intrusive intervention,” providing students with individually tailored care and support. In fact, for many HBCU students, the president, the faculty, and much of the support staff at HBCUs are almost like a second family. In a 2015 Gallup poll, nearly 60 percent of Black HBCU graduates felt that their professors “cared about me as a person,” compared with just 25 percent of Black non-HBCU graduates.

Like my adviser at Morehouse, I always invited my students home for dinner when I taught at Morehouse and Spelman.

And when I became the president of Dillard, my residence was on the quad, surrounded by dormitories. Every morning on my way to the office, I stopped to talk with students. I was getting to know them, helping them make the adjustment to life at a historically Black university.

I knew they were watching me, measuring me—and envisioning themselves and their future lives through me, just as I had done as a freshman at Morehouse.

Vice President Harris’s memories of her time at Howard reveal the deep bond between students and their HBCUs. “There are two things that shaped who I am today, my mother and my family, and Howard University,” Harris said in 2019. “The beauty of Howard,” Harris wrote in her memoir, was that “every signal told students that we could be anything—that we were young, gifted, and black, and we shouldn’t let anything get in the way of our success. The campus was a place where you didn’t have to be confined to the box of another person’s choosing. At Howard, you could come as you were and leave as the person you aspired to be.”

In short, HBCUs have been and remain uniquely protective and nurturing institutions for Black students. Students feel a sense of belonging and safety at HBCUs today because the schools create an island of support and connection in the larger, white-dominated society.

Conversely, many institutions of higher education are not welcoming communities for Black students, particularly for low-income, first-generation students. Far too often, predominantly white institutions (PWIs) use significant financial resources to recruit Black students, but then abandon them, failing to invest in programs to ensure that those students feel welcomed and bond with their institutions.

The PWI campus climate is typically cold and sometimes antagonistic, and Black students feel as though they are outsiders. They regularly encounter hostility, disparaging stereotypes, and questions whose underlying message is that they do not belong. At PWIs, no one ever asks: “Why are all the white kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”

Ultimately, Black Americans have no choice but to function in a white society. But in the midst of America’s racial crisis, there is nothing backwards-looking about attending colleges that welcome and celebrate Black students, instead of making them feel isolated and unsafe.

Portrait of a group of American Civil Rights leaders, gathered on the campus of Atlanta University (later renamed Clark Atlanta University) to discuss 'sit-in' protests, Atlanta, Georgia, mid-May, 1960. From left, top row: Bernard Lee (1935 - 1991, Dave Forbes, Henry Thomas, Lonnie C. King Jr, James Lawson; middle row: Virginuis Thornton, Reverand Wyatt Tee Walker, Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968), Michael Penn; and bottom row: Clarence Mitchell, Marion Barry. (Photo by Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Civil-rights leaders posing for a portrait at Atlanta University (later renamed Clark Atlanta University) in 1960. From left, top row: Bernard Lee (1935–91), Dave Forbes, Henry Thomas, Lonnie C. King Jr., James Lawson. Middle row: Virginius Thornton, the Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68), Michael Penn. Bottom row: Clarence Mitchell, Marion Barry. (Howard Sochurek / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty)

Just as many Americans remain ignorant of the ongoing and outsize impact of HBCUs, so too do many remain oblivious to the bias and discriminatory treatment that HBCUs encounter from the government, philanthropic donors, lenders, and accreditors.

To our nation’s continued shame, the discriminatory treatment of HBCUs is manifest in the halls of Congress, the Department of Education, and state higher-education agencies.

To cite one example, colleges and universities overall experienced a decline in federal funding per student from 2003 to 2015. Yet a joint study last year by UNCF and the American Council on Education found that for most institutions, the funding decline was modest, amounting to a few hundred dollars a year per student.

By contrast, private HBCUs, and private HBCUs alone, suffered a devastating decline in federal support. In 2003, federal funding per full-time student at private HBCUs came to $4,300 a student. By 2015, federal funding had plummeted to $2,500 a student—a drop of more than 40 percent.

Large federal research grants almost never go to HBCUs, in part because of chronic federal underinvestment in HBCU research centers and facilities. According to a 2016 Journal of Negro Education study, Johns Hopkins University received $1.6 billion in federal, state, and local grants and contracts in 2014. That same year, all of the nation’s HBCUs, combined, received $1.2 billion.

Many state governments and state higher-education agencies are just as biased. In 2002, three HBCUs in Mississippi were awarded a total of about $500 million to make up for persistent state underfunding of the institutions; meanwhile, the state’s flagship school, the University of Mississippi, can make that amount in roughly five years of private donations.

More recently, after a court decision found that the state of Maryland had encouraged segregation and allowed academic programs at predominantly white universities to undermine rival programs at HBCUs for years, the Maryland legislature approved a nearly $580 million settlement for four HBCUs in the state. Last May, Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, saying the state couldn’t afford it—even though it may not have been enough to begin with.

Racial inequity in public funding is mirrored in private support. In February 2020, NPR ran a story under the headline “Largest Gift in Howard University History Sparks Conversation About HBCU Donations.” Why should the largest gift in Howard’s history—in this instance, a $10 million donation to strengthen Howard’s STEM programs—“spark a conversation about HBCUs”? Because, as the article went on to say, is that what was then the largest gift in Howard’s history is still a small fraction of the major gifts that go to predominantly white state schools and selective private universities.

Since the NPR story ran, several philanthropists have made bigger gifts to HBCUs. In July, MacKenzie Scott, a philanthropist and the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, donated tens of millions of dollars to six HBCUs, including $40 million to Howard and $20 million to Tuskegee University. In December, Scott doubled down with multimillion-dollar gifts to more than half a dozen other HBCUs, including $50 million to Prairie View A&M University and $40 million to Morgan State. Last June, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, donated $40 million each to UNCF, Spelman, and Morehouse. And in a rare event for HBCU graduate programs, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in September donated a total of $100 million to four historically Black medical schools.

As welcome as these record gifts are, they still are far more modest than those made to many PWIs in the past decade. Not far from Howard, the University of Maryland at College Park received a $219 million gift. Nearby Georgetown University received a donation of $100 million. The University of Oregon received $500 million to build a STEM-focused campus in Eugene. Shortly after the $10 million Howard gift was announced, Binghamton University disclosed that it had received $60 million to build a baseball stadium. And Bloomberg donated a staggering $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins.

The $10 million gift to Howard that NPR singled out for coverage should be the norm for HBCUs. Instead, it’s an exception because of unspoken and unrecognized bias against HBCUs among philanthropic donors.

The disparity in philanthropic support for HBCUs adds up. The Institute for Higher Education Policy has calculated that minority-serving, four-year institutions receive a little more than $860 a student in private gifts and endowment return. By contrast, non-minority-serving institutions receive nearly eight times as much per student in private gifts and investment return, or just under $6,600 a student.

Given the huge donation gap, it’s no surprise that the endowments of HBCUs are paltry and frequently mean HBCUs are at risk of going insolvent, especially during financial crises such as those generated by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Education Department data, the total endowment holdings of all 101 HBCUs today is about $3.4 billion. More than 25 predominantly white institutions on their own have larger endowments than the entire HBCU sector. Harvard alone has an endowment of just under $40 billion.

If the implicit bias and disparate treatment of HBCUs by philanthropists and federal and state governments don’t amount to sufficient evidence of systemic discrimination, consider the disproportionate sanctions and loss of accreditation for HBCUs. College accreditation, awarded by private accreditors, is a do-or-die proposition for HBCUs because students cannot get federal student loans or Pell Grant scholarships to attend unaccredited schools.

The main accreditor for HBCUs, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), accredits approximately three-fourths of the nation’s 101 HBCUs. SACSCOC, however, has its own problematic history with HBCUs. The agency was founded in 1917, but its policies barred HBCUs from becoming full members until 1930. A few HBCUs could apply for membership after 1930, but none was afforded full membership until 1956.

Students on Lincoln University campus.
Lincoln University. (Librado Romero / The New York Times / Redux)

SACSCOC’s accrediting standards were developed for completely different types of institutions and student bodies—large, wealthy, predominately white public institutions—instead of small, historically underfunded HBCUs and community colleges that prioritize low-income and underserved students. As a result, SACSCOC has regularly sanctioned and stripped accreditation from HBCUs for lack of financial stability at much higher rates than any other type of institution. A new study finds that from 2012 to 2017, SACSCOC was more than three times as likely to take adverse actions against HBCUs than non-HBCUs, such as issuing a warning or placing a school on probation, after controlling for a school’s budgetary resources and graduation rates.

The 77 HBCUs accredited by SACSCOC constitute less than 10 percent of the agency’s nearly 800 member schools. Yet HBCUs accounted for more than 40 percent of all institutions dropped from SACSCOC’s membership in the past three decades. Year in and year out, SACSCOC disproportionately levies sanctions against HBCUs.

To glimpse the biases in SACSCOC’s accreditation process, consider the infamous academic-athletic scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The scandal is widely considered to be the most egregious academic-fraud case in recent history.

From 1993 to 2011, the university’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies awarded credit and top grades to 3,100 students, nearly half of whom were athletes, for classes that never met and had no instruction.

The phantom classes were created by a secretary in the department who automatically awarded high grades to students who turned in a paper for the no-show courses. In addition to the fake classes, the department created hundreds of bogus independent studies that had no instructor.

In 2015, SACSCOC placed UNC Chapel Hill on probation for a year, but opted not to pursue further sanctions. The school avoided penalties from the NCAA by retracting its acknowledgment to SACSCOC that it had committed “academic fraud,” claiming that the statement had been a “typographical error.”

I find it hard to believe that if any of North Carolina’s 10 HBCUs had engaged in systematic academic fraud involving more than 3,000 students for nearly two decades, SACSCOC would have allowed the HBCU to remain accredited.

For HBCUs, a single violation of a SACSCOC integrity standard can lead to losing accreditation. In 2004, SACSCOC withdrew accreditation from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, after an administrator allegedly copied sections of the school’s quality-enhancement plan submitted to SACSCOC from a plan prepared by another HBCU, Alabama A&M University. A federal court later ruled that SACSCOC had denied due process to Edward Waters, and the agency subsequently restored the school’s accreditation.

Discrimination against HBCUs follows their students even after they graduate. Earlier this year, the Student Borrower Protection Center, a consumer-advocacy organization, released a groundbreaking study of what it called “educational redlining,” which detailed in dollars and cents the bias that HBCU graduates face from banks and lenders.

The study examined what could happen when graduates applied to refinance a $30,000 student loan. In the study, two hypothetical college graduates had identical financial and job characteristics—both were 24-year-old residents of New York City, and both were salaried financial analysts who earned $50,000 a year and had worked for their current employer for five months. The only difference between the two applicants was that one had graduated from Howard and the other had graduated from NYU.

The audit of lending practices unearthed and quantified what the study calls “the HBCU penalty.” Compared with the NYU graduate, the Howard graduate was charged $3,500 more to repay their loan and about $729 more in origination fees. This is a glaring example of discrimination—HBCU graduates today are being penalized for nothing more than the fact that they graduated from an HBCU (even when that institution is known as a capstone of the HBCU system).

Spelman campus
Spelman College in Atlanta. (Audra Melton / The New York Times / Redux)

It’s time, at this moment of racial reckoning, to finally elevate HBCUs and enable them to compete fairly with predominantly white institutions for students, professors, research grants, government funding, and endowment dollars.

Doing so would acknowledge that HBCUs face more daunting challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic in the long term than most postsecondary institutions. As of this fall, undergraduate enrollment is down about 5 percent at HBCUs, and the enrollment of Black students is down 13 percent at community colleges, institutions that also have a high percentage of low-income students.

Black Americans are about 1.6 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white peers, and the unemployment rate for Black Americans today is nearly double that of white Americans. More than 50,000 African Americans have already died from COVID-19. Many of those who died have relatives attending HBCUs. So far, at least, many students who are returning to HBCUs are complying with health-and-safety measures, and some HBCU infection rates are in the single digits, but the pandemic is far from over.

Making matters worse, the endowments of HBCUs are too small for most institutions to draw on to defray losses from potential enrollment declines. HBCUs remain heavily dependent on tuition dollars to pay their bills and stay afloat.

In addition, many schools lack the technological infrastructure to switch readily to online-only instruction—and some low-income students who attend HBCUs do not have personal laptops or high-speed internet access at home.

In short, resources matter, and they matter especially to HBCUs and low-income minority students during the worst pandemic in a century. Lawmakers and government officials should enact measures to redress systemic racism in higher education and fulfill the promise of equal opportunity.

Given President Biden’s ambitious $70 billion plan to bolster support for HBCUs, and hard-won bipartisan support for HBCUs during the Trump administration, Congress could enact far-reaching measures to support HBCUs this year for the first time, particularly with Harris occupying the vice president’s office.

A top priority for UNCF and a Biden-Harris campaign promise is raising the maximum Pell Grant scholarship award from its current level of about $6,350 a year to $13,000 a year. Unlike some of the costly proposals for tuition-free public college floated by Democratic presidential candidates last year, Pell Grant scholarships are limited to low-income students and can cover not only tuition, but the cost of room and board.

Doubling the maximum Pell Grant scholarship is crucial to HBCUs, given that more than 70 percent of their students rely on Pell Grants each year to reduce the cost of college, and Pell Grants, unlike student loans, don’t have to be repaid, and therefore don’t send students into debt.

In the late 1970s, the maximum Pell Grant covered approximately 80 percent of the cost of a college education for a student at a public four-year university, including tuition and room and board. Today, the maximum Pell Grant award covers only about 30 percent of the price of college for that same student.

At a time when the federal government is already providing widespread debt relief to students because of the pandemic-induced recession, it should permanently relieve all HBCU capital debts. The December omnibus spending bill made a vital down payment on erasing remaining HBCU debts, forgiving $1.3 billion in outstanding loans in the HBCU Capital Financing Program for more than 40 HBCUs. An additional $700 million in debt remains unforgiven; eliminating it would ease the pressure on HBCU endowments and be an essential next step toward rectifying decades of insufficient funding.

The chronic underfunding of HBCUs cannot be resolved overnight, but Congress should continue to take more far-reaching action to close the investment gap. Instead of nickeling-and-diming HBCUs, as Congress and state legislatures have done for decades, legislators should authorize a $1 billion grant investment in the infrastructure of HBCU campuses so they can begin to fairly compete for students and faculty with schools that have state-of-the-art research laboratories and technological infrastructure, up-to-date dorms, modernized dining halls, energy-efficient utility services, and the like.

I am cautiously optimistic that the long era of half measures is drawing to an end, and that lawmakers will attempt to start addressing systemic racism in higher education and redressing long-standing biases against HBCUs. Ensuring that Black lives matter means ensuring that young Black leaders—the students whom HBCUs educate—matter too, not just in Black America, but in all of America. It also means ensuring that neither I nor any HBCU student ever again has to answer that insidious question, “Do we still need HBCUs?”

Howard University's marching band performs as students and the Royal Court sing, during halftime of Howard's 93rd annual Homecoming game against North Carolina A&T on Saturday, October 22, at Greene Stadium on campus in Washington, DC
Students attending a homecoming game at Howard University. (Cheriss May / NurPhoto / Getty)