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Public Perceptions of Increased Funding for HBCUs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU
November 3, 2021

While conversations around the affordability of higher education often focus on the influence of individual circumstances, well-funded institutions may shoulder some of the costs to unburden students. To do so, institutions of higher education must appropriate and allocate funding responsibly. However, educational institutions receive varying amounts of public funding, especially when comparing historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to their non-HBCU counterparts. According to a poll conducted by the Research Institute for Social Equity (RISE) at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, just under one out of 5 people (19%) knew how public funding was provided to HBCUs. Of those, 73% approved increased direct public funding to the schools. In comparison, 22% disapproved of increasing direct public funding. Among those who know how public funding is provided to HBCUs, there are political divides among Democrats (92%), who were much more likely than Republicans (57%) to support increasing direct public funding. The results also determined non-Hispanic white individuals (75%) were slightly more likely than minority individuals (71%) to approve of increased direct funding for Virginia’s HBCUs.

Gasman explains that in the decades following the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau, in collaboration with white abolitionists and Northern philanthropists, worked to establish HBCUs with the sole purpose of educating Black citizens, as they were largely barred from attending other institutions of higher education until 1960. By providing opportunities to access higher education, HBCUs were a catalyst for the social progress Black citizens made. One study by Saunders and Nagle found that as of 2016, HBCUs comprised 9% of four-year institutions, enrolled 24% of all Black students pursuing bachelor’s degrees, conferred 26% of all Black bachelor’s degrees and awarded an average of 32% of STEM degrees earned by Black students. HBCU contributions to the national workforce do not stop there. They also created 134,090 jobs and $14.8 billion in total economic impact annually for local and regional economies.

In comparison to the national statistics, Saunders and Nagle also found that Virginia HBCUs accounted for 11% of four-year institutions in the state, enrolled 29% of all Black undergraduates and conferred 32% of bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students. Virginia’s five HBCUs including Hampton University, Norfolk State University, Virginia State University, Virginia Union University, and Virginia University of Lynchburg generated $913 million in total economic impact and 8,404 jobs for their local economies. Most notably, Virginia ranked among the top three states in degree conferral to Black students from HBCUs in 2016.

Prior research has found that the historically discriminatory patterns of underfunding facing HBCUs continues to pervade higher education. In their examination of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) by the National Center for Education Data (NCES), Sav found that compared to predominantly white institutions (PWIs), HBCUs receive less public funding overall despite the funding gap narrowing from 16.7% in 1995 to 12.5% in 2006. This trend indicates a need for greater awareness and urgency to advance public funding of HBCUs. As it currently stands, it appears that funding parity would not be achieved for another three decades. Per Toldson, the annual average of funding from federal, state, local governments and private foundations in 2014 totaled $27.7 million for all institutions of higher education, whereas HBCUs received $12.8 million.

Although HBCUs are generally deficient in publicly sourced funding, public funds continue to be their life-breath. Williams and Davis found that between 2014 and 2015, public HBCUs (54%) relied more heavily on public funding than non-HBCUs. This issue is compounded by the fact that HBCUs also tend to receive fewer donations, grants and contracts and have endowments that are, on average, 70% smaller than non-HBCUs.

Coupet and Barnum in conjunction with Toldson, underscore the resilience demonstrated by HBCUs as they face a perpetual lack of funding while continuing to serve low-income and first-generation students, who are largely diverse. Consequently, concerns of underfunding intersect with equity issues as the general mission of HBCUs is to bolster academic accessibility to demographic and socioeconomically diverse populations. Without adequate funding, Gasman concludes, HBCUs continue to struggle with low retention rates because students cannot afford to enroll all four years as HBCUs grow in tuition dependence.

The polling data, in tandem with prior research, points at a need for awareness raising to address the inequitable distribution of resources to institutions of higher education. “The polling as it relates to funding for HBCUs is not surprising. There has been little advocacy in Virginia relative to the historical inadequate funding and that in and of itself is inadequate,” said Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. Nevertheless, without adequate funding, HBCUs have persisted in meeting the needs of historically disadvantaged populations. The dedication to the advancement of diversity in education by HBCUs is evidenced by their contributions to minority and low-income education but may be improved with prioritization of public funding. The risks of continually underfunding them involve direct impacts to educational opportunity and local economy among others.


Author: The L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University aims to engage, teach and inspire students and leaders to understand and solve challenges in our world; advance research that informs public policy and decision making to improve our communities; and collaborate with communities through innovative partnerships to enhance quality of life. The 2022 U.S. News & World Report rankings confirm the Wilder School among the top 15% of schools of public affairs at No. 38. The Wilder School is also ranked No. 19 in Social Policy, No. 28 in Urban Policy, and No. 34 in Public Management and Leadership. Twitter: @VCUWilderSchool

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