The Steep Cost of Decades of Discrimination

It will take more than a onetime injection to Black colleges to make up for a legacy of racism.

Two students walk near a building at Prairie View A&M University.
Prairie View A&M University (Thibodeaux / Bloomberg / Getty)

The rich have grown richer and the poor poorer during the pandemic, and institutions of higher education have been no exception. Colleges that primarily serve students who are an unexpected expense away from leaving school bore the brunt of the crisis. Community-college enrollments were down 9.5 percent last fall; historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) saw a decline of 5 percent. Despite a year of record philanthropic giving, 2020 was financially devastating for many of them.

“It’s important to support all colleges, but we know that some colleges are feeling the impact much more, and most importantly some students are feeling the impact more, than others,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told me on Friday. The Biden administration has a goal to “build these colleges up better than they were before,” and this starts, he said, with the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic-stimulus package that President Joe Biden signed in March. More than 900 community colleges will receive a total of $10 billion from the federal government; the nation’s roughly 100 Black colleges will gain $1 billion immediately, plus another $1.6 billion later this year.

Each year, the federal government disperses about $1 billion to HBCUs through a mix of 15 programs such as Pell Grants and research and development contracts. “With all of this new funding, you’re talking about, in one year, potentially tripling what we would normally get,” Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, a private HBCU in New Orleans, told me. “I can’t think of anything that compares to this historically.”

Although the Biden administration’s investment in HBCUs is unprecedented, many advocates are hoping that it is just the beginning. “Numbers can be historic, but we can still need so much more to be funneled in,” Dominique Baker, a higher-education professor at Southern Methodist University, told me. Part of the challenge, she added, is that state governments have long discriminated against Black students and the colleges they attend. A recent audit in Tennessee revealed that, from 1957 to 2007, the state failed to meet its legal obligation to match the federal land-grant funding of its Black college, Tennessee State University, by more than $500 million. According to one estimate, Maryland over the past century shorted its four public Black colleges by at least $2.73 billion—more than the sum the Biden administration has targeted to similar institutions across the entire country. The money that would be required to address the deliberate disinvestment in Black colleges is eye-popping. But as Katherine Wheatle, a federal-policy analyst at the Lumina Foundation, an education nonprofit, told me, “Racism is expensive, and we’re starting to see the bill.”

Cardona told me that the administration’s injection of funding shows its commitment to making not just HBCUs but also community colleges, minority-serving institutions, and tribal colleges equitable. He highlighted how personal the goal of preserving the vitality of these schools is to people in the administration’s highest ranks: Vice President Kamala Harris is a graduate of Howard University, and the first lady, Jill Biden, has long been a community-college professor. “The president gets the role these colleges play and understands the historical underinvestment,” he said.

Several HBCU advocates expressed to me how the additional money from the federal government is quickly starting to add up. In early April, the administration canceled roughly $1.5 billion in debt accrued by Black colleges through the HBCU Capital Finance Program, which allows the institutions to refinance existing debt and make infrastructure repairs and renovations. (The Trump administration similarly erased debt from some HBCUs along the Gulf Coast that had been hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.) The program is essential for Black colleges, as recent research has shown that in many cases they have to pay more interest than non-HBCUs when borrowing money for capital-improvement projects. In its request for 2022, the administration is asking for an additional $600 million over last year’s budget for community colleges, minority-serving institutions, HBCUs, and tribal colleges. And Biden’s $2.7 trillion infrastructure proposal includes $10 billion for research and development projects at these schools. Taken together, Kimbrough told me, all of this funding “really gives HBCUs a chance to become stabilized in a way we’ve never had a chance to be stabilized.”

Cardona is bullish that both higher levels of funding for HBCUs and the administration’s commitment to community colleges and other struggling institutions will endure. “The president understands the important role that these colleges have in providing recovery for our country, and clearly he is putting the funds behind it,” he told me. “This isn’t a onetime thing.”