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Greater Funding, Greater Needs: Congress Must Act Now

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

No truer words were spoken than by legendary African American abolitionist, orator, writer, statesman and social reformer, Frederick Douglass, who was delivering a West India Emancipation speech in 1857 at Canandaigua, NY.

Douglass’ words are as powerful and true today as they were 165 years ago. These are words on which I ponder as the U.S. Senate prepares to pass its funding bills, including the funds to support programs impacting HBCUs. They must become law before we turn our calendars to 2023. Lodriguez V. MurrayLodriguez V. Murray

It is because we need Congress to act now that UNCF (United Negro College Fund) is releasing a report I believe would make Douglass proud. The report, entitled, “Greater Funding, Greater Needs: A Report on Funding for HBCUs,” encourages policy makers, elected representatives and private donors to use it as a base to inform their funding decisions and redouble their support for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Over the past two years, UNCF’s engagement and lobbying to hold elected officials accountable have helped to direct unprecedented funding of $6 billion in additional federal funding to HBCUs.

Again, power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.

Growing awareness among donors of the greater need for support during the pandemic, coupled with the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Movement, unleashed a wave of contributions. The more recent movement to respond to the death of George Floyd and others because of systemic issues has given new life to HBCUs.

Thanks to the massive influx of federal funding and private donations, HBCUs entered 2022 in a much stronger position than before the start of the pandemic.

HBCUs now run the risk of losing out on funding from stakeholders who may erroneously believe the need has lessened. Now, a critical challenge for HBCUs will be overcoming common myths that the spike in federal funding and private donations has resolved long-standing budget shortfalls.

The federal government has consistently fallen short of mandated funding levels for HBCUs. For example, from 2003 to 2015, both private and public HBCUs experienced the steepest declines in federal funding per full-time-equivalent student among all institutions. Private HBCUs endured a 42 percent reduction—the largest decrease among every category of higher-education institutions.

According to our report, “Greater Funding, Greater Needs,” one result of recurring budget shortfalls is that institutions have been forced to delay spending on infrastructure, such as student dorms, recreation buildings and research facilities. Many HBCUs face a large growing backlog of deferred maintenance projects.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), public HBCUs, on average, have totaled deferred maintenance of more than $60 million. Deferred maintenance results in obsolete facilities, issues with student housing and the inability to operate some buildings.

Federal spending bills such as Build Back Better and the HBCU IGNITE Excellence Act would allocate significant levels of funding to HBCUs to help them address their infrastructure needs, among other things, but they are currently stalled in Congress.

Again, power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.

So, we have much more work to do.

A two-year influx in federal and philanthropic funding cannot reverse 150 years of systemic, persistent underfunding. In other words, the funding that Congress has appropriated and the funding that has come from our philanthropic partners has not alleviated the lack of funding from past decades of racism and economic inequities.

Here is my prescription: Congress needs to commit to fund HBCUs, collectively, at federally mandated levels going forward while providing extra funds to address the deferred maintenance backlog. This month the U.S. Senate is considering the Education funding bill, and if the Senate bill follows its annual trend, the funding levels for HBCU priorities will be below what the House has already passed. The time for Senate throwing cold water on HBCU needs is over. It is time for power to finally concede.

Given the crucial funding needs and the national benefits of HBCUs, I implore the 117th Congress to fully fund the Department of Education’s “Strengthening HBCUs” discretionary program at no less than $500 million; fund the “Strengthening Historically Black Graduate Institutions” discretionary program at no less than $100 million; forgive the remaining balances of institutions currently participating in the HBCU Capital Finance Program; double the Pell Grant; and strengthen pipeline training programming at the Department of Health and Human Services to invest in programs that increase the number of doctors and researchers, especially doctors and researchers of color. To that end, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should grant more funds to HBCUs.

Congress must act now and lead the way by increasing funding to HBCUs which will help to stimulate greater funding for these institutions from private and philanthropic donors going forward.

No one can dispute the fact that HBCUs meet a national need: producing bright, capable graduates who tend to come from underserved backgrounds. However, the education they receive enables them to become productive citizens who contribute to the growth and well-being of our country.

In 2017, UNCF produced a report on the economic impact of HBCUs. UNCF found that one single graduating class of HBCU students will earn a minimum of $130 billion, collectively, over their lifetime. Last May, our institutions collectively graduated nearly 50,000 students. Moreover, our institutions together have an annual economic impact of $15 billion.

HBCUs do what no other type of institution does or attempts, and for that reason, greater needs demand greater funding.

Lodriguez V. Murray is senior vice president of public policy and government affairs for UNCF (United Negro College Fund). 

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