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Black Colleges Face State Funding Crunch


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today is a big day for many students around the country. This is the final day for those high school seniors lucky enough to have a choice to make their final decisions about which college or university they will attend.

For many, that decision has a very great deal to do with how it all gets paid for. We've been talking about the college money maze over the past few weeks along with our colleagues at Morning Edition. Today, we're spending some time talking about some of the distinct financial challenges students of color face in paying for higher education. In a few minutes, we'll focus on Native American students.

You might be surprised at what a big difference a gas card can make. We'll tell you why in a few minutes. But first, we want to take a look at how historically black colleges and universities are doing. These institutions, for the most part, were founded in the days after slavery and during segregation when African-American scholars were largely excluded from other universities and colleges. But now these schools are becoming more diverse. And at the same time, many are dealing with economic uncertainty.

A new report titled "America's Public HBCUs: A Four Sate Comparison Of Institutional Capacity And State Funding Priorities" describes these realities at institutions in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education co-authored the report. And she's with us now to tell us more. Welcome back to the program. Thank you for joining us.

MARYBETH GASMAN: Thank you. I'm always happy to be here.

MARTIN: Now, this report follows a prerecession study done in 2008. Is there something that you and the other researchers thought was particularly important to follow up on?

GASMAN: Well, the prerecession report was authored by James T. Minor. And I think it's one of the most important reports that's been done on HBCUs because he was able to uncover some deep inequities among public HBCUs at the state level. I've always admired the report. So we decided that we were going to replicate it post-recession. And we found out some interesting things.

MARTIN: Well, there are a number of really striking findings. In the four states that the report follows - once again, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina - it showed that on average the HBCUs - historically black colleges and universities - tend to be funded at lower levels than the predominantly white institutions. Why is that?

GASMAN: There are a couple of things involved. One, there is a long history of historic underfunding. And, quite frankly, that's tied to American racism. There's no other way to explain it. But I would also say that HBCUs tend not to be valued in the same way states. I think that that is changing in some states, as we've seen. I think there's some hope in Mississippi because of new funding structures that they're putting in place that will credit HBCUs for the lion's share of the work that they do with low-income students. But I don't see them being valued across the board.

MARTIN: You said that - in the report - that there were some legal decisions that actually had a beneficial effect on state funding of HBCUs in Mississippi and Alabama. But in Louisiana, for example, cut funding to all public four-year institutions, but the HBCUs were hit the hardest.

And there was only one predominately white institution in Louisiana that experienced a steep drop in funding, and that's the University of New Orleans, which saw a drop of, like, 32 percent. The other institutions were above a third. Why? I mean, are they perceived as less effective? Are these institutions smaller? I mean, why do think that is? Or is it just - people just don't believe in their mission?

GASMAN: Well, Louisiana, in particular, I think we found to be the most troubling because we did see that across the predominantly white institutions, they took a cut of 25 percent. But if you look at Southern A&M University, it was down 45 percent, Grambling down 36 percent. And I think that it's a hostile environment for HBCUs in the state of Louisiana.

MARTIN: Well, the other thing you point out in the report is that there are certain, what you call, higher education barometers heavily favoring efficiency. That policymakers and higher education leaders are very interested in institutions that achieve results at lower cost. So you're saying that there's a lot of interest in eliminating duplicative programs. What's the defense of offering the same programs that are offered at a flagship institution?

GASMAN: Well, here's the interesting thing. Typically what happens is an HBC you will have a program and then a majority institution will establish a similar program. That means that typically white students will go to the majority institution instead of taking advantage of the program at the historically black college. And over and over I'm asked why. And the only answer that I can come up with is that's how racism works in the United States.

And it's been working that way for a long time. So if you want to have more integration at all of the institutions, then you need to make sure that you support programs and don't duplicate them at majority institutions. And at the same time, historically black colleges are being pressured to integrate more. Well, it's very hard to do that when you're pulling away any potential students who might be white or other races from coming to the institution by creating duplicate programs.

MARTIN: So you have recommendations for the HBCUs. I mean, it sound like you also have, you know, recommendations for the predominantly white institutions as well. But given these realities - I mean, you also point out - I did mention this at the outset of our conversation - that the populations of these institutions are becoming more diverse. That, for example, more Latino students are seeking out these institutions. Do you have recommendations for them about how they can maintain viability in these difficult environments?

GASMAN: Well, I think one of the most important things that HBCUs of all types, public and private, can do is to tell their story and tell it often and tell it with pride. The institutions that are doing the best are the ones that are, quite frankly, in your face and letting you know that they're doing good work. I think one of the reasons why they tend not to be valued, the public ones, is that they enroll low-income students.

And many times we don't value low-income students. So you have to spend some time telling people why it is so important for our nation to be educating low-income students, and especially low-income students of color. This is even more important as we see the country's demographics changing. If we don't do this, what will happen to our country? And I think people should ask themselves that.

MARTIN: Could it be, though, that this is a philosophical belief, that these institutions are no longer necessary given that the kind of legal segregation that was the norm at the time these institutions were founded is no longer the case? Could that be part of it? Is it, philosophically, some people just don't believe these institutions serve a necessary purpose anymore, so why continue to fund them?

GASMAN: I think that there are people that think that. And it's interesting that we would talk about this right after the Supreme Court's decision because I think there are a lot of people who don't want to support affirmative action and also don't want to support historically black colleges. And what does that say about the way that we think about African-Americans in the United States, the value that we put on African-American lives and their education? I wonder what that says.

MARTIN: Marybeth Gasman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. She joined us from the studios at that campus. Professor Gasman, thanks so much for joining us once again.

GASMAN: Oh, my pleasure, always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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