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'Theft At A Scale That Is Unprecedented': Behind The Underfunding Of HBCUs

May 13, 2021
Originally published on May 13, 2021 10:41 pm

Tennessee could owe a historically Black university more than a half-billion dollars after it withheld funding for decades.

A bipartisan legislative committee determined last month that the state failed to adequately fund Tennessee State University in matched land grants going all the way back to the 1950s, costing the public university between $150 million and $544 million.

When the school was founded, the federal government designated it a land-grant institution, as it did with the University of Tennessee. Under the program, the state of Tennessee was required to match the federal money sent to the schools each year.

"In TSU's case, the state did not match the funds dollar-for-dollar for decades," stated a news release from the legislative committee.

Tennessee State isn't the only historically Black college or university missing out on state funds. Maryland recently finalized a $577 million settlement to resolve a lawsuit alleging the state had underfunded its four HBCUs.

Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written about Maryland's battle with inequality in public higher education, blames institutional racism for what he believes is a pervasive lack of funding at HBCUs.

"We should assume that it's race, because many of the other institutions — predominantly white institutions — are receiving their full funding," he tells NPR.

Calling the recent findings at TSU "theft at a scale that is unprecedented," Perry says funding should be scrutinized across the U.S., at every HBCU.

"This is what fuels the economy: a highly educated workforce. So if we're denying Black students, Black institutions [state funding], we're throttling the economy," he says.

Perry spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about how Brown v. Board of Education played a role in HBCU funding, the way Black students are denied specialized program opportunities and the myth of reluctant alumni donors as a root cause for lack of school funding. Listen in the audio player above and read on for highlights of the interview.


Interview Highlights

On how segregation laws created funding disparities in higher education

Well, since the '50s, since Brown v. Board, the federal government ordered states to desegregate their schools. And most people just think that occurred in the K-12 arena, but it also occurred for higher education institutions. And by the way, most HBCUs are in Southern states. And so there has just been a reticence to desegregate higher ed based on funding, and so many of these states created funding formulas that regularly just shortchanged HBCUs.

On the academic consequences of underfunded HBCUs

Well, when any university doesn't have adequate funds, they're not able to produce the kind of high-cost programs that might be in demand. And so I'll just give an example: engineering. To run an engineering school, it costs a lot of money. And so if you're coming up short, guess what? You're not going to have an engineering program, or it's going to be theoretical in nature and you won't have the equipment, you won't have the facilities to have people get the best out of that degree. In addition, you're not able to innovate.

But what you're seeing in HBCUs, it's not just that they're not able to innovate or add certain degree programs. Their facilities are deteriorating. They're not able to keep up with the competition. And so, this just leads to a lowering of standards, and eventually students won't want to go.

On the argument that a lack of alumni donations is responsible for the financial problems at HBCUs

When people say this is a problem of people giving ... what they're really saying is we're going to blame Black people for the lack of funding in Black institutions, abdicating the state's responsibility to do so. That's all that it's saying. We need to expose this lack of funding as really theft at a scale that is unprecedented.

So that's why this is just horrible, these findings. And we should go deeper. We should do an investigation at every state, for every HBCU, and we should assume that they are being robbed.

Jason Fuller and Sarah Handel produced and edited the audio story. Emma Bowman adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Can you imagine being at a college that's missing out on as much as half a billion dollars? Well, Tennessee State University - the only public historically Black college and university in the state of Tennessee - doesn't have to imagine this. From 1957 to 2007, Tennessee State University was underfunded year after year, as the Tennessee state legislature failed to allocate funds to the school as it's required to do so under a state law. And Tennessee state isn't the only HBCU missing out on state funds. To talk about all of this more, we're joined now by Andre Perry. He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Welcome.

ANDRE PERRY: Hey. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. I mean, Tennessee - you know, it's not the only state that owes money to HBCUs, as we just mentioned. Can you just give us a general sense of how pervasive this underfunding is of HBCUs?

PERRY: Well, since the '50s, since Brown v. Board, the federal government ordered states to desegregate their schools. And most people just think that occurred in the K-12 arena, but it also occurred for higher education institutions. And by the way, most HBCUs are in southern states. And so there has just been a reticence to desegregate higher ed based on funding. And so many of these states created funding formulas that regularly just shortchanged HBCUs. And we should assume that it's race because in many of the other institutions, predominantly white institutions are receiving their full funding. And as a former dean at a university, I can tell you that when it comes to making sure you pay what is owed, college university presidents make sure of that.

CHANG: And what are some of the academic consequences that you see when an HBCU doesn't get enough state funds?

PERRY: Well, when any university doesn't have adequate funds, they're not able to produce the kind of high-cost programs that might be in demand. And so I'll just give an example - engineering. To run an engineering school, it costs a lot of money. And so if you're coming up short, guess what? You're not going to have an engineering program, or it's going to be theoretical in nature. And you won't have the equipment. You won't have the facilities to have people get the best out of that degree. In addition, you're not able to innovate. But what you're seeing in HBCUs - it's not just that they're not able to innovate or add certain degree programs. Their facilities are deteriorating. They're not able to keep up with the competition. And so this just leads to a lowering of standards. And eventually, students won't want to go.

CHANG: Now, there are some people out there who understand the underfunding of HBCUs as a problem with alumni giving. Alums can be blamed for a school's financial problems, so I'm curious. What do you make of that line of thinking?

PERRY: When people say this is a problem of people giving - and by the way, Black people, in terms of the percentage of their overall income, give more than any other group. But what they're really saying is we're going to blame Black people for the lack of funding in Black institutions, abdicating the state's responsibility to do so. That's all that is saying. We need to expose this lack of funding as really theft at a scale that is unprecedented. When you're talking about half a billion dollars in Tennessee for one institution...

CHANG: Yeah.

PERRY: I mean, this is theft at a scale in an area...

CHANG: That's astronomical.

PERRY: That's astronomical. And by the way, this is what fuels the economy - a highly educated workforce. And so if we're denying Black students, Black institutions, we're throttling the economy. So that's why this is just horrible, these findings. And we should go deeper. We should do an investigation at every state for every HBCU, and we should assume that they are being robbed.

CHANG: Andre Perry is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Thank you very much for joining our show today.

PERRY: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.