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HBCUs have been underfunded by $12 billion, federal officials reveal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sixteen states have been underfunding some of their historically Black colleges for decades. The shortfall is more than $12 billion, according to an analysis from the U.S. Department of Education. And of all these states, Tennessee underfunded its HBCU land grant college more than any other state. Now students want the money back. From member station WPLN in Nashville, Alexis Marshall reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALEXIS MARSHALL, BYLINE: We're inside the gymnasium at Tennessee State University. The school's Grammy award-winning Aristocrat of Bands is playing. Students hand out free T-shirts and signs that say, we've been cheated. There's a DJ and some fiery speeches coming from the stage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you believe we got the power? We going to get it back what's rightfully ours. Amen.

MARSHALL: All of this is meant to hype up the crowd for a town hall that's about to start. University President Glenda Glover concisely explains the goal.

GLENDA GLOVER: No underfunding. That is the entire agenda.

MARSHALL: For TSU, that means reclaiming a staggering $2.1 billion. That's the money the federal government says Tennessee owes to the historically Black university. The feds compared per student spending at HBCUs and predominantly white land grant institutions. They found a huge gap. By law, they're supposed to be funded equitably, but that's basically never happened, says Learotha Williams, a history professor at TSU.

LEAROTHA WILLIAMS: But it's very clear to anybody that pays attention to the history of the states and their relationships with these institutions that they were never intended to be equal to their white counterparts.

MARSHALL: Now that the federal government is asking states to make up for the funding discrepancies, Williams says he's not optimistic. For starters, Republican Governor Bill Lee has not said whether he accepts the $2.1 billion figure from the feds. Instead, he pointed to $250 million the state invested in the school last year. And Republican Senator Bo Watson, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, says he's not buying it.

BO WATSON: Will we have dialogue with our federal partners? Well, of course we will. But I'm not sure that their numbers are always as factual as they would like for you to believe. So we will continue to use our analysis as our guide.

MARSHALL: The state admits to underfunding its HBCU to the tune of half a billion dollars, a quarter of the federal figure. But the school is not backing down on this issue. At the town hall, student Shaun Wimberly Jr., who sits on the university board, encouraged his peers to join the fight.

SHAUN WIMBERLY: This is more than just a $2.1 billion issue. This is about our community. This is a story that's been written 400 years ago, and it still continues to this day.

MARSHALL: Wimberly says it's hard to imagine how much $2.1 billion could have transformed his school.

WIMBERLY: And we're left to sit here as students, as alumni, as faculty and wonder, what could our university have been?

MARSHALL: This is a question HBCUs in 15 other states may be considering. The feds say North Carolina A&T and Florida A&M Universities are also owed about $2 billion apiece. For NPR News, I'm Alexis Marshall in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY (Y.M.M.F.)")

ARISTOCRAT OF BANDS: (Singing) This is my, my time, so I ain't trippin', no. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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