HBCUs are leading centers of education — why are they treated as second-class institutions?

Graduates celebrate at Howard University in Washington
Editor's note:

This post originally appeared in The Hechinger Report; the version below has been lightly edited for style and content.

It’s past time America paid its debt to historically Black colleges and universities — HBCUs.

It’s hard to place a dollar figure on the injuries caused by devaluing Black lives and colleges, but it’s about time we tried. Last week at a rally near the Thurgood Marshall memorial in Annapolis, Maryland, supporters of four HBCUs — Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore —demanded that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) comply with a 2017 court order to resolve damages in an ongoing legal action, and agree to terms under which HBCUs could receive millions of dollars to make up for years of underfunding.

The money would be part of a settlement of a lawsuit that charged the state with short-changing HBCUs by giving white colleges more funding and access to more innovative programs. In an earlier ruling, a U.S. District Court found the state liable for creating an inequitable funding system that, over decades, robbed HBCUs of millions. A group of students, alumni, and supporters named in the original lawsuit as the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education is seeking $577 million in damages. Hogan offered $200 million to settle the lawsuit, which a state elected official called a dismissive, take-it-or-leave-it offer.

Before we can move forward to create equitable systems, we need our leaders in government to acknowledge and repair past wrongs. This is the basis for the pursuit of reparations for slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and de facto and de jure racial discrimination—reparations that are now part of the national discourse because of overwhelming evidence that discrimination forcibly extracted wealth from Black people, indigenous Americans, and other disenfranchised groups. The legal battle in Maryland is a microcosm of civil rights clashes taking place across the country.

Hogan should see that an investment in Black institutions and students is an investment in his state’s economic and social well-being. Inequality is a drag on the economy that is stifling talent, productivity, and race relations. As an elected official, it’s in Hogan’s interest, as it was in the interest of preceding governors, to remove the barriers that throttle societal growth. The state government’s reluctance to repair the injury caused by racism reflects the willingness of people in power to uphold unjust systems.

The Maryland case is 45 years in the making. In 1974, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) threatened to cut off federal funding when Maryland failed to sufficiently implement a plan to desegregate higher education, create an equitable funding structure, or eliminate duplicative academic programs that place its HBCUs at a competitive disadvantage. After several state plans to end the lawsuit were rejected by OCR, the Coalition for Equity filed a lawsuit in 2006. The HBCUs argued that Maryland had violated the rights of HBCU students under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, essentially saying the state continued to have a two-tiered system of higher education.

Though a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the HBCU plaintiffs, the coalition and the state were unable to agree on terms of restitution and the case returned to trial. The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus recently announced that the body will submit legislation to settle the lawsuit at the $577 million amount if an agreement is not reached by January 2020, when the Maryland General Assembly meets.

This fight is not unique to Maryland. From 1970 to 1997, there were court cases mandating equitable funding at public HBCUs in more than a dozen states. Court action has forced some states to address funding disparities, but in at least half of states, fewer dollars are still being allocated to HBCUs than predominantly white institutions, also known as PWIs. The more than 100 HBCUs receive significantly less state and federal dollars than their white peers. For example, in 2008, students at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State received $15,700 each, while the state allocated the HBCUs North Carolina A&T and Fayetteville State $7,800 per student, according to research cited in a University of Pennsylvania study. HBCUs also receive significantly less federal research and development funds than their predominantly white counterparts. In 2015, a U.S. Department of Education official reportedly said, “Any one of [the major research institutions] received more than all of the Black colleges combined. And that’s including Howard University. That’s a disconnect.”

We invest in things we value. Only racism would blind lawmakers to the obvious value HBCUs add to American society.

Since their beginnings prior to the Civil War, HBCUs have prepared their students to be leaders. They imbued students with a unique set of academic skills, an acute sense of justice, a passion for public service, and the confidence to achieve beyond their walls. HBCU alumni pushed the country closer to its lofty democratic ideals. For instance, prior to arguing before the Supreme Court on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board of Education case, Thurgood Marshall blossomed at Lincoln University and the Howard University School of Law—both historically Black institutions. Before winning a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Beloved” and the Nobel Prize in literature, Toni Morrison established her writing chops at Howard University. As a student at Fisk University in the early 1960s, Diane Nash co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which led campaigns to integrate lunch counters in Nashville; her work with the Freedom Riders helped desegregate public busing. In the 1970s, Oprah Winfrey, too, was a student at an HBCU, Tennessee State University.

History tells us that we should not expect leaders at PWIs to lead the charge for funding reform. People who benefit from the status quo have little incentive to change it. HBCUs are offering the kind of education that compels its students to create systems built on equity. If Hogan can’t see that, maybe he should go back to college—an HBCU.