Over the past decade, Black college and university enrollment has been dropping at alarming rates, declining 22% from 2010 and 2020. We can expect this recession of Black enrollment to continue in the wake of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision removing race as a consideration in college admissions. However, those who seek to create equal opportunity for everyone in America have overcome far greater obstacles before. Though the arch of the moral universe may bend toward justice, it has never been a simple straight-line trajectory. Instead of succumbing to despair, leaders who value diversity and view it as a strength in our higher education institutions and corporations must step up. Words of solidarity aren’t enough. We need action to help those who may be now left behind.
One of our strongest assets to reverse this trend are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which are becoming even more important for Black students who may be overlooked elsewhere. HBCUs were founded to provide pathways for Black students who are left behind and they continue to play that vital role today. Despite only representing 3% of all four-year institutions, they graduate 17% of all bachelor’s degrees and 24% of all STEM-related bachelor’s degrees for Black students, enrolling “more than twice as many Pell Grant-eligible students as non-HBCUs.”
Charging tuition rates that are on average nearly 30% less than at comparable non-HBCUs, these schools are among the best return on our nation’s post-secondary education investments. However, HBCUs have historically been underfunded and continue to be. The U.S. Department of Education recently shared with 16 states an analysis that they have been collectively underfunding their historically Black colleges by more than $12 billion. This shortfall will make it even more difficult for HBCUs to pick up the slack.
As the country’s largest champion of the Black college community, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) has awarded more than $500 million in scholarships and leadership development to HBCU students. One example of this work includes the TMCF and Wells Fargo scholarship that offers financial assistance to outstanding students attending one of 53 publicly supported HBCUs and Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs).
Yet, we know that even this support is not sufficient to the challenge HBCUs face. A federal government report documented how HBCUs continue to face challenges securing funding to maintain and improve campus infrastructure, “potentially jeopardizing their long-term sustainability.” Seventy of 79 HBCUs surveyed reported that 46%of their building space needed repair or complete replacement with some reporting that more than 75% of their building space needed repair or replacement.
State and federal leaders must help make sure their students have the resources they need to improve institutional facilities, increase broadband access, provide access to cutting-edge technological resources, decrease environmental hazards, and establish or enhance centers for innovative research. In September, we were proud to announce an historic $124 million investment from Blue Meridian Partners in our HBCU Transformation Project, which is a collaboration with United Negro College Fund and Partnership for Education Advancement that will support infrastructure improvements. In 2021, Congress took a critical first step to help address this disparity by introducing the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act which has yet to be re-introduced in this session.
We can also support our HBCUs by making college more affordable for students of lesser means who these institutions disproportionately serve. Congress should dramatically increase the maximum Pell Grant award, which is the primary vehicle to make college affordable for nearly seven million low- and middle-income students, including 75% of HBCU students.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said that "none of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody — a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony, or a few nuns — bent down and helped us pick up our boots." Today, we must strive to continue his legacy by helping the next generation of black leaders pick up their own boots. There is still far more work to be done, and there is perhaps no way better to help achieve that mission than by supporting our HBCUs.
Dr. Harry L. Williams is the president & CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community.