At this stage in our reckoning with America’s ongoing history of systemic racism, it comes as no shock that historically Black colleges and universities have been underfunded across the board. But recent letters sent by the Biden administration to governors across the South and Midwest detail this lack of support — and the data is cringe as hell.
According to the letters from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, land-grant HBCUs in 16 states were shortchanged more than $13 billion over the last 30-plus years. These HBCUs include Alabama A&M University, North Carolina A&T State University, Virginia State University and Tennessee State University, among others.
The letters address how much funding land-grant HBCUs in each of the states would have received in the last three decades if states’ funding per student matched the mandate of the Morrill Acts, a pair of late-1800s laws that established land-grant universities. Tennessee and North Carolina topped the list, with the gap in funding swelling to over $2 billion apiece.
“This is a situation that clearly predates all of us,” reads one of the sentiments in all 16 letters. “However, it is a problem that we can work together to solve. In fact, it is our hope that we can collaborate to avoid burdensome and costly litigation that has occurred in several states.”
The letters, recently made public by The Washington Post, analyze data from the National Center for Education Statistics to pinpoint how inequitable funding distribution is setting back progress at land-grant HBCUs compared to states’ other land-grant institutions.
Cardona and Vilsack say these missing funds could have supported “infrastructure and student services and would have better positioned [HBCUs] to compete for research grants” against their better-resourced, predominantly white counterparts.
Adding to the inequity, these letters come on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down race-conscious college admissions, an action many of us know will have a dire impact on higher education.
A little context on the Morrill Acts and how they led to land-grant HBCUs: as the National Archives explains, the first Morrill Act went into effect in 1862, during the Civil War, granting 30,000 acres of stolen tribal land for every senator and representative in a given state to be allocated as “public lands.” States could sell a portion of this public land to fund the creation of a public post-secondary institution or use it to expand an existing one. These institutions were meant to prioritize education and research on agriculture, science, military science and engineering, and they received (and continue to receive) federal and state funding through additional measures.
Because of Jim Crow and discriminatory enrollment practices, white men disproportionately benefited from this first wave of land-grant institutions. So, to counter this, a second Morrill Act was passed in 1890, as CNN explains. This act required states to prove that the existing enrollment practices at their land-grant institutions were not discriminatory or else to establish separate institutions specifically for Black people. States that didn’t adhere would have their land-grant funding withheld.
The second Morrill Act was the foundation of 19 land-grant HBCUs, which did not receive support in the form of physical land but received financial funding instead, according to the National Archives.
While the Biden administration’s letters make no mention of “systemic racism” or any such words, opting for lighter terms such as “unbalanced funding,” the message is clear. After considering the history of land-grant institutions and the gap in funding between predominantly white land-grant institutions and Black ones, it’s impossible to ignore a pattern of deliberate systemic racism at the center of all of this.