Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Recent Findings Question State Support Of Black Colleges

This week, a federal judge found that historically black colleges in Maryland were harmed when better-funded traditionally white institutions offered up the same degree programs in the state.

Tricia Bishop of The Baltimore Sun summed up the judge's ruling this way:

"The 60-page opinion ... found that certain high-demand specialty programs duplicated by traditionally white schools — a form of "separate but equal" — encouraged segregation among campuses by drawing students from the state's black schools, which historically have been underfunded. To repair the situation, the opinion suggested mediation, new niche areas for black schools and the possible transfer or merger of some programs."

(You can read the full opinion here.)

The judge stopped short of recommending any specific policy solutions, but a lawyer for the black college advocates who brought the case told Inside Higher Education that the decision would essentially move the state of Maryland to bolster its support for historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Bishop reported that Maryland's HBCU presidents were cautiously optimistic that this week's ruling might mean an influx of funding from the state.

In her opinion, Judge Catherine Blake acknowledged that Maryland had made great strides toward ameliorating some of the discrepancies between the higher education options it offered for whites and blacks. But she said the state has been embroiled in a long, protracted fight with the federal government over the way it manages its HBCUs — a fight that goes back to the days of segregation. Various findings over the past 80 years have ruled that the state's black colleges were underfunded and underresourced and couldn't compete with corresponding white institutions from which blacks were barred. (Besides the fewer resources, the black schools couldn't grant advanced degrees for much of their histories.) And she wrote that on several occasions, the state has opened up a competing institution in proximity to one of its struggling, cash-strapped HBCUs. The newer state colleges, in effect, had a big head start.

But Blake disagreed with the plaintiffs' argument that the state is presently funding its black colleges differently from its predominantly white ones. "There are sincerely held beliefs on all aspects of this very difficult debate, which cannot be satisfactorily resolved by one lawsuit, and one judicial opinion," Blake wrote.

Many States Underfund Historically Black Institutions

The ruling comes as HBCUs face a host of challenges, and notably, it's not the first finding in recent weeks that concluded states were pitting their HBCUs against predominantly white schools.

According to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, states were underfunding particular land grant HBCUs by $56 million. Land grant universities are funded in part by the federal government, and states are required to match the federal government's contribution. But while many HBCUs didn't get that matching state funding, the report found that states matched or paid more than they were required to for their predominantly white institutions.

"There's always been a history of underfunding HBCUs," the APLU's John Lee told Diverse last month.

All year, we've been writing about the tough climate faced by HBCUs. The challenges they face are compounded by the problems buffeting colleges everywhere, like skyrocketing tuition and student debt.

As my Code Switch teammate Hansi Lo Wang reported in September, the Obama administration's stricter lending guidelines for PLUS loans, which parents can take out to help pay for their children's college tuition, have hit HBCUs particularly hard. They tend to have lots of first-generation and low-income students who need financial assistance for college costs, and many historically black institutions have seen their student bodies shrink as a result. (The fallout from the new rules was so tough on HBCUs that Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, issued an apology for the way they were rolled out.)

"We talk about accessibility a lot, and in the past, that issue was one of sort of civil rights accessibility, [as in] 'I could not get into said school because I was black or yellow or whatever,' " said Johnny Taylor, who runs the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an advocacy group for HBCUs. "Now, the issue is, 'I can't afford to attend these schools,' and [the Parent PLUS Loan] was a tool."

We sound like a broken record in our coverage of HBCUs, but it's worth saying again just how big an impact HBCUs continue to have on the shape of the black workforce.

"[O]ne in five African-American college graduates earned their degrees at HBCUS; black colleges graduated nearly all black students (90 percent) who earned bachelor's degrees in STEM fields between 2006 and 2010; black colleges produce half of all black public school teachers, half of all future lawyers and eight in 10 black judges."

We'll be keeping an eye on Maryland's efforts to boost the appeal of its HBCUs to a diverse variety of students. Stay tuned to Code Switch for a story about an HBCU that's in a very different situation — its student body is 90 percent white.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.