Historically black colleges and universities are in the national spotlight.
Democratic presidential candidates have called attention to these institutions by laying out sweeping proposals to invest in their research, students and facilities. And in Congress, HBCUs have racked up several legislative wins that could grow their coffers.
Still, they face ongoing challenges. HBCUs have long served a large share of low-income students with fewer resources than other colleges. Potential bias from lenders and accreditors could also be affecting their ability to get lower premiums on loans and maintain access to federal student aid, according to two recent papers.
Fights to remedy these imbalances will continue this year. Despite the heightened attention from politicians, HBCU advocates are calling for more federal and state investment and are finding new potential in donations.
Here are five funding trends we expect to be top of mind for HBCU leaders in 2020.
Hot on the campaign trail
As the Democratic presidential primaries approach, many candidates have promised to massively increase federal spending on HBCUs.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been leading in polls, pledged $70 billion to HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and recently launched a campaign effort to garner support from their campuses.
Other top contenders for the party's nomination have promised similar investments. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has pledged $50 billion, while Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has promised to make all HBCUs tuition-free and to invest $15 billion in their training programs and infrastructure.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, debuted his plan to add $50 billion in funding for MSIs in an op-ed for The Baltimore Sun. In it, he cited a long-running lawsuit in Maryland that alleges the state has underfunded its HBCUs while allowing predominately white institutions to replicate their unique programs, harming their ability to draw diverse applicants.
"Lawsuits like the one in Maryland remind all of us how an uneven playing field yields underfunded colleges, declining federal funding and endowments that lag behind those of predominantly white institutions," Buttigieg wrote.
So far, the Trump administration has not outlined plans for investments in HBCUs, though it did set up an initiative in 2017 to strengthen those institutions.
"I'm hoping that President Trump also unveils an HBCU plan," Victor Santos, senior director of government relations at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said in an interview with Education Dive last year. That way, he added, the group could "see what a Republican HBCU plan looks like."
Federal funding victories
Late last year, Congress permanently reinstated a program that gives $255 million annually to primarily support STEM education at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. The move came as a relief to many college leaders, who were worried about the program's future after political wrangling led to a brief lapse in its funding.
"It made it impossible to plan because, first of all, we didn't know if we were going to get funding for next year," said Lily McNair, president of Tuskegee University, in Alabama. "We stepped up our efforts … to let (Congress) know about the importance of this act for our students and their institutions."
That month brought other good news. In its 2020 spending bill, Congress approved $325 million for HBCUs, an increase of $42 million from last year's budget.
This year's federal budget also raised the maximum Pell Grant by $150, bringing it to $6,345. However, the grants' purchasing power has been declining since the 1970s and today covers less than 30% of students' total cost of attendance at the average four-year public university, according to the National College Access Network.
Some higher ed groups are advocating for a larger increase — as much as double the current award — and indexing the grant to inflation.
A major increase to Pell Grants "disproportionately will benefit HBCUs," because the majority of their students are eligible for the award, said Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, in Louisiana.
"The focus is on under-resourced families," he added
Enrollment is up
After declining for six years, enrollment at HBCUs rose 1.49% year-over-year in 2017, according to the latest federal data.
Some institutions saw even greater gains. One-third of HBCUs have had record enrollment in the past three years, according to a research brief funded by Rutgers University. It linked the increase to minority students wanting to escape the racism they experienced in high school and to avoid hate-bias incidents at predominately white institutions.
"You're seeing students who desire a nurturing environment, and they are consciously choosing institutions that are going to center them and make them the focus," said Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at UNCF, an organization that lobbies on behalf of HBCUs.
UNCF also attributes the enrollment growth to recent changes in eligibility requirements for Parent PLUS loans, which parents and guardians can use to finance a student's undergraduate education.
The Obama administration tightened the credit standards for the program in 2011. The next year, 46% fewer families used the program at HBCUs, and enrollment declined at these institutions by 3.4%, according to a report from UNCF.
In 2015, however, those credit standards were relaxed. "What you're seeing are HBCUs rebounding from the Parent Plus fiasco," Murray said.
Attracting donor interest
Private HBCUs as a whole rely more on tuition revenue and less on private gifts and contracts than do other private institutions, according to the American Council on Education. They also tend to have smaller endowments and receive fewer massive donations than non-HBCUs.
The latter may be changing, however. This week, Howard University announced that it nabbed a $10 million donation — its largest gift yet — that will be partly used to fund a scholarship program designed to help more underrepresented students earn doctorates in STEM disciplines.
Just a few weeks earlier, Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley gifted $1 million to Miles College, an HBCU in Alabama. It's the largest donation Miles has received, and the fourth gift of that size Barkley has made to an HBCU.
Morehouse College, a historically black men's college in Atlanta, made headlines last year when billionaire Robert Smith announced during its graduation ceremony that he would pay off the student loans of some 400 graduates.
A few months later, he expanded that to include the parents who had taken loans out to finance the graduates' education, bringing his total gift to $34 million, The Washington Post reported.
And Bennett College, in North Carolina, brought in nearly $10 million last year during a two-month fundraising campaign that intended to help prove it was financially stable enough to keep its accreditation. Along with smaller donations from some 11,000 contributors, Bennett brought in $1 million each from High Point University, a nearby college, and the Supercharged Initiative, a California-based organization. (The fundraising campaign didn't end Bennett's accreditation woes, and it is now seeking a new accreditor.)
Smaller, lesser-known institutions are still struggling to land donations of that size. And crowdfunding campaigns like Bennett's aren't likely to fix larger issues stemming from government disinvestment and HBCU's lack of other financial resources, contended Delece Smith-Barrow, a senior editor at The Hechinger Report, in an op-ed for The New York Times this fall.
Yet as philanthropists and the federal government begin to funnel more money into HBCUs, UNCF's Murray said, "you're starting to see just the precipice of the … renaissance that these institutions can undergo so that students who need this type of investment are receiving it and getting the proper outcomes they deserve."
Battle for state funding
Many public institutions took a hit when state funding fell following the Great Recession. But those declines were particularly troubling for HBCUs, which rely on government funding more than non-HBCUs.
In Maryland, advocates for the state's four HBCUs are seeking $577 million to settle the lawsuit over what they say is a pattern of inequitable funding. Gov. Larry Hogan has offered them just $200 million. If they receive the money, they said it could be used to develop academic programs and to hire faculty at the state's HBCUs.
Other state leaders are taking a different approach. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam proposed giving the state's two public HBCUs nearly $300 million to make capital improvements.
And in North Carolina, undergraduate enrollment at Elizabeth City State University surged 19% the year after the state gave it and two other public colleges $51 million so they could lower tuition to $1,000 for in-state residents and $5,000 for out-of-state students, according to a local media report.
"Those types of policies on a state level can have a major impact on increasing the number of students," Harry Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, told Education Dive.