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A financial boost looms for historically black colleges and universities in the United States


Hillary-Rhys Richard is part of an Apple-funded initiative at Huston-Tillotson University, an HBCU in Texas, to train black men as teachers.Credit: Apple

Historically, black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States are poised to increase their investments in scientific research and education following a wave of new grants and legal settlement proceeds.

Most of these institutions were created in the 19th century to serve students of African descent. They are also hoping for additional funding as part of the federal budget proposed by US President Joe Biden for fiscal year 2022.

There are over 100 HBCUs in the United States. About half are public institutions that rely primarily on government funding, but they have long been hampered by a lack of financial support, says Willie May, vice president for research and economic development at Morgan State University, an HBCU in Baltimore, Maryland.

The additional funding is expected to help HBCUs increase their research results and ultimately diversify the scientific workforce, he said. “It’s a unique moment. Looks like we’re about to get a fairer slice of the pie. You should take advantage. “

According to the US National Science Foundation (NSF), federal support for science and engineering activities in HBCUs fell 37% between 2009 and 2019. In contrast, overall science and engineering funding for American higher education institutions fell only 10% in the same period.

But in May 2021, a federal judge approved a settlement of US $ 577 million for Maryland’s four HBCUs, including Morgan State. A lawsuit filed in 2006 argued that the state had unfairly supported programs and degrees at other public universities that were in competition with the HBCUs.

The payment will be distributed among the establishments on the basis of the number of students. May estimates that her university will receive between $ 150 million and $ 200 million over 10 years, an amount that should help her achieve a key goal: to move from its current Carnegie classification as an R2 research institution (a doctoral university with high research activity) to an R1 (a doctoral university with very high research activity, the highest classification of this type) over the next decade. The move, he said, would boost the university’s global profile and help promote international awareness and collaboration.

In April, a legislative panel found that the state of Tennessee owed Tennessee State University (TSU) in Nashville up to $ 544 million to remedy years of underfunding. Ebony McGee, a science education researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said the state essentially took money from TSU and gave it to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, a predominantly white institution.

Federal funding

HBCUs across the country are also hoping for a further injection of federal dollars. On September 8, Democrats in the United States House of Representatives proposed a four-year fiscal year 2022 education budget that includes $ 1.45 billion for HBCUs, tribal colleges (those who are owned and managed by indigenous communities on indigenous property) and other institutions where most students and interns are from ethnic minority groups.

Negotiations are continuing, but this level of funding would represent a substantial increase of the roughly $ 1 billion that the U.S. government already invests in HBCUs each year, through mechanisms such as scholarships and research contracts.

The increase in funding could have been much larger. In March, the Biden administration proposed spending $ 20 billion to modernize science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) laboratories and research infrastructure at HBCUs. However, this provision was missing from the version of the bill that was passed by the US Senate in August.

Willie May gives a talk into a microphone on a brown wooden podium.

Willie May hopes to make good use of the increased funding from Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.Credit: Morgan State University

In May, the US Department of Energy announced it would spend $ 17.3 million to create research opportunities and scholarships, with a focus on students of color; much of the money will go directly to HBCUs. Howard University, a leading HBCU in Washington DC, will receive nearly $ 400,000 to support research into converting fossil fuels to hydrogen using electromagnetic energy.

Companies are also showing new support for HBCUs. In June, Howard, Morgan State and two other historically black institutions – Alabama A&M University in Normal and Prairie View A&M University in Texas – each received $ 5 million “innovation grants” from Apple. Among other things, the grants are intended to support courses in computer architecture and silicon engineering.

Ten HBCUs also received $ 5 million each from Google as part of the company’s commitment to “close the diversity gap in technology,” according to a company statement released in June.

Expand and diversify

In its quest to become an R1 institution, according to May, Morgan State intends to identify and invest in specific niches – including cybersecurity and coastal science – in which it could become a recognized center of excellence. at national scale. “We are happy with the regulations, but we have to be wise,” he says.

As part of its commitment to STEM, the university has rolled out new degree offerings in 2021, including a PhD in cybersecurity, a master’s degree in advanced computer science, and undergraduate degrees in cloud computing and mechanical engineering. It has also partnered with Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, to offer undergraduate degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering.

According to the NSF, the HBCUs confer nearly a fifth of all science bachelor’s degrees earned by black students in the United States. And undergraduate study at an HBCU is often a route to a graduate degree: about a third of black doctorate holders in science have earned an undergraduate degree at an HBCU.

Ebony McGee leans on a railing in an open-plan atrium.

Ebony McGee says that historically black colleges and universities are good incubators for scientific talent.Credit: Ebony McGee

Eleven HBCUs are currently classified as R2 establishments, a number that has grown steadily over the years. “There was a tendency for more HBCUs to become research institutions before this wave of funding started,” says Ivory Toldson, who studies counseling psychology at Howard and is director of innovation and innovation. educational research at the United States National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights organization based in Baltimore, Maryland. No HBCU has reached R1 status yet, but Morgan State isn’t alone in wanting to get there. Toldson says administrators at Howard and Texas Southern University in Houston are hoping to eventually upgrade to R1.

HBCUs can be great incubators for scientific talent, especially with sufficient resources, says McGee, who wrote a 2020 report on structural racism in higher education STEM (EO McGee Educ. Res. 49, 633-644; 2020). She notes that the demographics of HBCU faculties tend to mirror that of the student body: “I don’t know of a single HBCU that doesn’t have at least five black STEM faculty members. This gives black students a clearer view of their possibilities than they often have in predominantly white institutions. “If you’ve never seen a black engineering professor,” McGee said, “it’s hard to imagine yourself being a black engineering professor.

She adds that some black students feel more supported and comfortable in an HBCU. “They want to be able to walk across campus without being stopped by the police,” she said.

HBCUs enroll many students who may have their choice of campus, McGee says. But she also specifies that they accept many who might have difficulty finding a place elsewhere, because they are the first in their family to enter higher education, or because they come from other disadvantaged backgrounds.

Settlement funds and one-time grants are welcome, but the HBCUs will ultimately need more reliable support if they are to thrive and compete, McGee says. She adds that HBCUs typically do not have the endowments or rich donor bases that many predominantly white institutions enjoy. The American Council on Education reported in 2019 that the endowments of public and private HBCUs are on average 70% lower than those of other institutions. The report states that this disparity “jeopardizes the ability of an HBCU to cushion cuts in state and federal funding.”

“All this funding extravaganza is two or three years old. These things often come in waves and go away just as quickly, ”says McGee. “We need government and taxpayer money to support HBCUs in a strong way. “

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