HBCU Insights: How legislative and judicial decisions of the past and present shape HBCUs

A column by Larry J. Walker

Throughout the nation’s history African-Americans struggled to combat economic, education, political and social obstacles. For instance, grandfather clauses and literacy tests were designed to prevent African-Americans from participating in the electoral process. Despite the barriers African-Americans stood steadfast and slowly chipped away at policies designed to maintain a caste system. To counter years of oppression stakeholders utilized the judicial system to reverse Jim Crow policies. After years of incremental steps African-Americans continued to encounter roving groups that sought to maintain a system of oppression through physical intimidation. Fortunately the overt threats did not deter civil rights organizers from pushing for a legislative framework that addressed systemic flaws. Several HBCU alumni including Ella Baker, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless others helped to reshape the political landscape. Today, the lessons learned from HBCU alumni of the past can help solidify the future for HBCUs.

Recently, Congressman Bobby Scott, Ranking Member, Education and Workforce Committee and Senators Tammy Baldwin and Corey Booker introduced the “America’s College Promise Act.” The bill is an extension of President Obama’s free community college proposal, which is modeled after Tennessee’s education plan. The bill provides $10 billion over a ten-year period that would benefit thousands of minority, first generation and underserved students. Congressman Scott’s and Senators Baldwin and Booker’s plan would benefit HBCUs by strengthening the post-secondary pipeline, encouraging more Black and Latino students to attend HBCUs, support the efforts of students who require academic enrichment and lower student debt.

Throughout his tenure President Obama highlighted the importance of increasing opportunities for students of color. The President recognizes that the nation’s success is linked to creating more opportunities for all Americans. Ignoring the gaps between affluent and underserved communities could undermine efforts to increase the number of Americans with postsecondary degrees or certificates. HBCUs are uniquely equipped to enroll students from various socioeconomic backgrounds and prepare them to compete in the global economy. However, they need additional funding to ensure students have access to academic and social supports to achieve the American dream. Passing “America’s College Promise Act” would provide HBCUs with vital resources to improve conditions for students from urban and rural communities with limited resources. Without a new funding stream thousands of students will not have the opportunity to pursue a postsecondary education.

Recently, social upheaval in Baltimore and Ferguson reignited calls from social justice advocates to improve conditions in under-resourced communities. This neo-Civil Rights movement is reminiscent of the fight in the 1960’s that pressured the U.S. government to pass the Great Society programs. Events including sits-ins led by North Carolina A&T students galvanized the African-American community and reshaped the nation. A half a century later HBCU advocates, alumni, faculty, staff and students could use the template developed by Civil Rights advocates to increase support for “America’s College Promise Act.” Advances in technology allow supporters to coordinate via social media to encourage legislators to pass initiatives that close the resource gap.

Utilizing relationships with alumni and student government associations, black greek letter organizations (BGLO’s) and sports related groups is important. Working closely with these organizations provide critical linkages that exist in states throughout the United States. HBCUs should work collectively to encourage politicians to back proposals aimed at funding traditionally underserved institutions. Based on recent history it is apparent that efforts to protect HBCUs can produce positive results.

In 2013, a federal judge ruled that the state of Maryland did not effectively support HBCUs including Bowie State University, Coppin State University, University of Maryland-Eastern Shore and Morgan State University. The judge’s decision reverberated throughout the HBCU community. Since their inception HBCUs have not received the necessary funding or recognition for enrolling students from underserved communities. According to the ruling, Maryland’s predominantly White institutions (PWIs) offered duplicate programs that undermined efforts at HBCUs to recruit and retain students.

The 2013 decision was significant for two reasons: acknowledging HBCUs were treated unfairly and creating a template for other institutions to follow. For example, Cheyney University filed a lawsuit against the commonwealth of Pennsylvania asserting that the state did not abide by a 1999 agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. Cheyney is the oldest HBCU in the nation and faces several obstacles that supporters contend are directly related to the state’s refusal to meet specific guidelines outlined in the agreement. A coalition of civil rights lawyers, alumni and advocates “Heeding Cheyney’s Call” believe the state is culpable and seeks to remedy years of inequitable funding. The decision by alumni and supporters in Maryland and Pennsylvania to fight for changes could impact HBCUs in states throughout the nation.

HBCUs continue to encounter barriers that hamper efforts to improve programs, recruit faculty, lower attrition rates and renovate facilities. Consequently, institutions have used the judicial system to address years of unfair treatment. Despite the barriers HBCUs graduate 25% of Black science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors and create pathways for students from predominantly low and moderate-income households. With additional financial support HBCUs could increase the six-year graduation rate for Black students. Ensuring students from traditionally underserved communities have access to a quality education is important. The nation is at a crossroad. Currently, a disproportionate number of Black and Latino students live below the poverty line yet the country’s demographics continue to change. Supporting initiatives that address years of unequal funding between HBCUs and PWIs is the key to protecting the nation’s future.

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Dr. Larry J. Walker is an educational consultant focused on supporting historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His research examines the impact environmental factors have on the academic performance and social emotional functioning of students from HBCUs.

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