In September, the Biden administration pressed 16 governors from both political parties to address chronic underfunding of their states’ historically Black land-grant universities.
These HBCUs collectively missed out on more than $12 billion from 1987 to 2020, according to an analysis of federal data from the Education and Agriculture departments.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack sent states individual letters detailing their land-grant HBCUs’ level of underfunding. Tennessee and North Carolina had the largest deficits of more than $2 billion.
The issue of inequitable funding between HBCUs and predominantly White institutions is not new to college leaders. Now, state lawmakers are reacting to the Biden administration’s new figures, with some calling for legislative change and others disputing the federal findings.
State lawmakers press for action
The Biden administration identified a $603 million per-student state funding gap between the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University, a land-grant HBCU in the state. Georgia state Reps. Sandra Scott, Viola Davis and Kim Schofield, all Democrats, are threatening legal action if state leaders don’t close the divide.
On Thursday, the trio said they sent a letter to Georgia’s governor, the University System of Georgia's chancellor, and the system’s governing board chair, urging them to correct the gap within 10 days "before further legal action is taken.”
Lincoln University, a Missouri land-grant HBCU, received almost $362 million less in per-student funding than the University of Missouri over the course of three decades, Cardona and Vilsack said in their letter to Republican Gov. Mike Parson.
In response, Missouri lawmakers are making a bipartisan push to get the state to analyze its history of systemically underfunding Lincoln, Democratic Rep. Kevin Windham told The Missouri Independent last week.
The proposal is inspired by Tennessee’s 2021 study that found its land-grant HBCU, Tennessee State University, may have missed out on up to $544 million in state funding. The goal, Windham said, is to repair Lincoln’s programming and infrastructure.
In Oklahoma, state Sen. George Young and Rep. Jason Lowe, both Democrats, said they were disappointed but not surprised by the notable funding inequities the Education and Agriculture departments identified.
Langston University, Oklahoma's land-grant HBCU, received almost $419 million less in state funding per student than Oklahoma State University over the course of three decades, according to the Biden administration.
"$419 million is a lot of money to the coffers of almost any institution, but to Langston it’s a substantial sum to help the realm of education in our state," Young said in a September statement. "This ‘oversight’ has been well publicized and investigated. It is time to correct it!"
Lowe agreed, saying both sides of the aisle dropped the ball.
"Clearly, Democrats and Republicans have failed this great institution," he said. "I look forward to examining this issue in greater detail during the upcoming legislative session.”
Oklahoma’s next legislative session starts in February.
In Mississippi, outgoing state Rep. Alyce Clarke, a Democrat, said lawmakers must address the almost $258 million per-student funding disparity identified by the Biden administration between the state's land-grant HBCU, Alcorn State University, and Mississippi State University.
“MSU is not to blame for receiving the funding it has received over the years to grow and prosper,” Clarke told WJTV. "However, it is unfair to Alcorn State students when their institution did not receive the same equity in funding."
State leaders refute findings
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's administration is pushing back on the assertion that Virginia underfunded its land-grant HBCU, Virginia State University.
The Biden administration said Virginia Tech, the state's other land-grant institution, received roughly $275 million more in per-student funding than Virginia State over a 30-year period.
But Virginia Education Secretary Aimee Rogstad Guidera said in an Oct. 4 letter to Cardona and Vilsack that state data tells a different story.
“Based on reliable data from state-maintained finance, accounting and education systems, the Commonwealth has funded VSU well above Virginia Tech on a per student basis in aggregate, since 1994,” Guidera said, noting that's when the state began having reliable college data.
She also said there are "well-documented" problems with the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, known as IPEDS, that prevent it from collecting quality student-level data. The U.S. Department of Education collects data from federally funded institutions each year and shares the resulting statistics through IPEDS.
Guidera cited a 2016 report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy that found the public-facing database can not flexibly adapt as data needs evolve and doesn't accurately represent all enrolled students, especially those that are part time and low income.
The head of Kentucky's Senate also disagrees with Cardona and Vilsack's assessment.
Shortly after the administration’s letter was published, David Givens, president pro tempore of the state Senate, said Kentucky State University is overfunded when looking at metrics like its number of full-time equivalent students.
"My initial reaction to the letter was to be perplexed,” the Republican lawmaker told WLEX-TV in September. "Knowing what we did in the last budget and prior budgets, knowing that we have met or exceeded every budget recommendation from both Republican and Democratic governors as it relates to KSU."
The Biden administration found that the University of Kentucky received just over $172 million more in per-student funding over 30 years than Kentucky State, its HBCU counterpart.