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Upon his death in 1832, the Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys bequeathed one-tenth of his estate for the founding of the African Institute. That Pennsylvania academy would eventually become the nation’s first HBCU, Cheyney University. Since that time, Historically Black Colleges and Universities have educated millions, filling a gap caused by racial prejudice and serving as a source of pride for African-Americans and the country at large.
A quick look at the numbers reveals that HBCUs as a class remain on firm financial ground today. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, HBCU enrollment rose 25 percent between 1976 and 2020. Prominent HBCUs like North Carolina A&T and Howard University have seen particular growth in recent semesters, with the former experiencing a rising headcount every year since 2014 and the latter enjoying a 28 percent gain in student matriculation since 2019.
Additionally, federal assistance to HBCUs during the Covid-19 pandemic was disproportionately generous. As S&P Global Ratings reported earlier this month, the average American university received $3,319 per full-time student, while HBCUs received a massive $18,000 for each full-time enrollee. Indeed, as S&P bluntly stated, many HBCUs “are better positioned now than prior to the pandemic.”
The Call for Increased HBCU Funding
Yet, despite these encouraging figures, black scholars and activists have begun to call for more—and permanent—funding for HBCUs. Writing in Inside Higher Ed earlier this month, University of Baltimore president Kurt L. Schmoke and Chicago State University president Zaldwaynaka Scott argued that Predominantly Black Institutions and HBCUs should be part of “the national higher education equity conversation.” Specifically, Schmoke and Scott contended that federal support should be “increased to adequate levels through proper funding streams that remain funded year after year.”
Appearing before Congress this past March, Jackson State University president Thomas Hudson trod similar ground when he asked what it would take “to ensure the long-term protection of … the historical assets that are HBCUs.”
Not to be neglected is the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2023 budget, which requests an HBCU funding increase of $65 million, a demand cited by the United Negro College Fund as its “top [budgetary] priority.” Moreover, while the House version of the doomed Build Back Better bill would have funneled $2 billion to HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, reporting in the New York Times and elsewhere suggests that administration officials initially hoped to award a sum 10 times as great.
HBCUs’ Dangerous Futures
To the extent that this bailout chorus is growing louder, it is doing so in part because of the perception that HBCUs may soon face mounting financial challenges. As the American Association of University Professors noted last year, “only a handful” of black colleges have endowments in excess of $200 million. Furthermore, while the graduation rate for all American colleges was 60 percent in 2019, HBCUs reported a rate of only 35 percent, a figure that suggests a failure to retain students and student dollars.
Like other institutions of higher learning, HBCUs are susceptible to so-called demographic cliffs, which reduce dramatically the number of freshman prospects available for recruitment. (An example: The 2008 recession saw a baby “bust” that could cause enrollment declines of up to 15 percent in 2025.) In fact, HBCUs are arguably more sensitive to demographic shifts than are other institutions. As reported by the American Council on Education, private HBCUs “are slightly more tuition-dependent than their non-HBCU counterparts.” Put simply, a significant number of black colleges rely on a fresh crop of 18-year-olds every fall. If the enrollment “harvest” were ever to fail, such institutions could not long endure.
The Case Against Bailouts
Though concerns such as these are entirely valid, the government should not attempt to shield HBCUs from market forces with an infinite supply of federal largesse. The case against doing so may seem insensitive, but it is built on reason rather than emotion, a correct understanding of the Constitution, and a proper grasp of historical and contemporary realities.
To begin with, let us concede that to declare every HBCU an unclosable “historical asset” is a kind of special pleading. Though a society may rightly protect the treasures of the past, not every old house can be saved, nor can every battlefield escape the plow. In the last six years alone, at least 75 American institutions of higher learning have shut their doors or merged with larger competitors. Some of them, like Alabama’s Judson College, were more than 150 years old. To be sure, HBCUs have played a crucial role in America’s educational history. Yet that alone does not justify granting them a status denied to other august institutions.
For those who might argue that HBCUs should be safeguarded precisely because of their race-specific missions, a second hurdle remains. While American jurisprudence has lamentably strayed from the 14th Amendment’s promise of “equal protection of the laws,” a plain reading of the Constitution precludes enriching some citizens on the basis of their skin color. Whatever a court may hold on any given day, the practice of singling out black universities, for good or ill, is a clear violation of the spirit of that text.
Finally, there is the matter of cultural evolution — the welcome and necessary elimination of bigotry in college admissions. When Cheyney University first opened its doors, African-Americans were largely barred from attending established colleges. Today, wonderfully, no such formal barriers remain, and black students have begun to vote with their feet. Between 1976 and 2020, black enrollment across all postsecondary schools more than doubled, while the percentage of black students choosing HBCUs fell by half.
Without question, this is due in part to the preferential treatment that non-HBCU institutions have long given black applicants. Yet any downscaling of affirmative action (via next year’s Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, for example) would likely bolster the fortunes of black colleges. That irony will not be presented to the justices of the Supreme Court, but it is nevertheless real.
None of this is to say, of course, that Historically Black Colleges and Universities have no role to play in the 21st century, or that black institutions should willingly close up shop. Rather, HBCUs should do everything in their power to remain as vibrant and necessary as they have always been.
In that quest, Americans of all races will cheer them on. But we shouldn’t bail them out.
Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.