Black History Month is a time to celebrate Black Americans and their contributions to American culture and society—to recognize icons such as Rosa Parks and discover new favorites such as Vivien Thomas and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It is an opportunity to reflect on the elections of the first Black president, former President Barack Obama, and the current vice president, Kamala Harris, as well as the recent nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. These milestones make it tempting to consider the struggles of slavery and Jim Crow reflections of a distant past. But for many Black college students, February brought tangible threats to safety and well-being.
According to the FBI, 57 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), other institutions, and houses of worship across the nation received bomb threats from January 4, 2022, through February 16, 2022. In addition, at least one other HBCU, Hampton University, received a bomb threat on February 23. For HBCUs, these threats are all the more chilling because they recall acts of violence and terror against students at Black colleges since the end of the Civil War.
As recently noted in The Atlantic, a college serving Black students in Tennessee was burned to the ground in 1866 during a race massacre in which 46 Black people were killed. Violent incidents such as the Orangeburg Massacre occurred on or near HBCU campuses during the civil rights movement. And as recently as 1999, a man detonated two bombs at Florida A&M University. Just as disturbing is that these attacks are not the only sign that some seek to wind the clock backward in terms of equal opportunity for Black college students.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases in which appellants are seeking to overturn precedent that allows colleges and universities the ability to consider race as one factor in admissions decisions. Since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of race in admissions—known as affirmative action—as recently as 2016, many supporters fear that the ideological majority on the current court wishes to end the practice entirely.
As the Center for American Progress has previously written, “Race-conscious admissions policies have been and are still necessary for all students of color … to combat long-ingrained inequities in higher education.” States that have previously banned affirmative action have seen long-term declines in Black, Latinx, and Native American student enrollment.
The potential end of affirmative action is even more stark against the backdrop of declining higher education opportunities for Black students. According to a CAP analysis, the average Black recipient of a bachelor’s degree owed more than they initially borrowed a dozen years after entering college. The Education Trust has documented how fewer Black students attend the most prestigious public universities today than two decades ago. And overall Black enrollment in college was declining even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Enhancing federal support for HBCUs
HBCUs, a mix of around 100 public and private institutions in the United States, arose in the face of Black Americans’ exclusion from higher education but did not receive equitable access to the same resources available to non-HBCUs. In 2021, The Century Foundation found that on a per-student basis, the endowments of non-HBCU public institutions were three times those of public HBCUs, while the endowments of non-HBCU private institutions were seven times those of private HBCUs.
Yet HBCUs have built impressive legacies in spite of this neglect. Although HBCUs make up a relatively small part of higher education, they educate a significant number of Black leaders and innovators. Historical greats include Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr, and more recent examples include Vice President Harris, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-GA) and Stacey Abrams.
Recently, there has been renewed public interest in HBCUs, in part due to the decision of leading public intellectuals Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates to join the Howard University faculty—bringing millions of philanthropic dollars with them—in a rebuke to the University of North Carolina, which initially refused to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones. In addition, many HBCUs have received major donations, including $560 million in gifts from billionaire MacKenzie Scott in 2020—in many cases, the largest sums these colleges had ever received.
Indeed, there is room for HBCUs to achieve so much more, with additional support from the federal government and other sources. President Biden recognizes the value of HBCUs and, as he noted in his State of the Union address Tuesday, he has proposed providing them with “historic support.” As he wrote last fall, “Imagine how much more creative and innovative America would be if our HBCUs had the same funding and resources as other institutions—allowing young people from every community to compete for the jobs and industries of the future.”
In response to a recent executive order calling for a governmentwide approach to supporting HBCUs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created an HBCU council to “identify enhanced opportunities for recruitment of students and support for institutions through grants, contracts, transparent data sharing and community engagement.” It is encouraging to see federal agencies working to implement Biden’s executive order. The administration should continue to work to provide more technical assistance opportunities for HBCUs seeking to apply for federal research grants.
Under the leadership of Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), and other members of Congress, HBCU-related programs have seen funding increases through the appropriations process and have enjoyed bipartisan support. Yet Congress should still provide more funding for HBCU-related programs through the fiscal year 2022 and future appropriations processes—and either through administrative or congressional action, the federal government should allow HBCUs to put existing funding toward enhanced security in response to the recent bomb threats.
In addition to these efforts, Congress can support HBCUs by passing H.Con.Res. 70, a bipartisan resolution that condemns the recent bomb threats and is supported by 64 higher education organizations, including CAP.
Next, Congress can and should find an opportunity to pass into law elements of the Build Back Better Act that supported HBCUs, as well as broader provisions that would make college more affordable. And Congress should look at additional ways to support research and development for HBCUs and Black scientists.
Taken together, these recommendations will equip HBCUs to provide further educational opportunities for Black students.
This moment of fear and sadness for HBCUs should galvanize policymakers to lift up the sector and move the gears of progress for Black students forward, not backward. Facing bomb threats, a Supreme Court that appears poised to end affirmative action, an affordability crisis, and the inequities of an ongoing pandemic, students at HBCUs are living in a present that does not seem so distant from the past. The Black History Month that just concluded is a reminder that the gains in access to education—education free from terror and that leads to economic success—can erode. Policymakers and institutional leaders must redouble their efforts to ensure that the higher education system lives up to its promise for all students. Better support for HBCUs is central in that effort.