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Historic federal funding of HBCUs coincides with the rise of state funding shortfalls


Twelve billion dollars - 12 billion. According to the Department of Education, that is the funding shortfall between historically Black land grant colleges and their predominantly white counterparts in 16 states. By law, they are supposed to be funded equitably. The gap is sparking protests, also sparking lawsuits. Meanwhile, calls to write decades of underfunding of historically Black colleges and universities, HBCUs, at the state level coincide with a rise in federal funding. I want to bring Tony Allen into the conversation. He is president of Delaware State University, which is an HBCU. He also chairs President Biden's Board of Advisors on HBCUs. President Allen, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TONY ALLEN: Hey, Mary Louise. How are you doing?

KELLY: I am doing all right. I am wondering how all this is playing out on your campus. I noticed that, happily, Delaware is not on the list of states where major funding discrepancies have been documented. But I'm guessing your students and faculty are watching all this pretty closely.

ALLEN: They are. And I would tell you, if you put this in context, I think the report you're referring to comes from 1987 to 2020. If you really included the the whole of our existence, the disparities are still significant. But we are making good progress in that regard. For my sister institutions, that $13 billion is a real number. It has meaningful impact on their campuses every day.

KELLY: Well, just help me understand that when you say this is a real number. We were reporting on this program last week, for example, about the shortfall at Tennessee State. The federal government says Tennessee, the state, owes $2.1 billion to the historically Black university. Just whether it's at Tennessee or somewhere else, what kind of things can that amount of money by?

ALLEN: Oh, well, you know, you can do all kinds of things as it relates to recruitment. And that's both of faculty, staff and students. You think about new classroom space, new living spaces, new laboratory renovations. All that really goes to who you want to come to the campus. We want them to come to facilities that have best-in-class opportunities. It's already true that HBCUs do more with less. We now say boldly that less is no longer acceptable.

KELLY: Meanwhile, as I mentioned, President Biden's administration has made historic investments in HBCUs...


KELLY: ...To the tune of billions since 2021. Is that money being distributed, being spent to address some of the priorities you just outlined?

ALLEN: So no president in American history has given more to HBCUs so quickly with a clear vision for doing more. That number is about $7 billion just in his time in office thus far. Three point six billion dollars of that went to the American Rescue Plan. One point six billion dollars of that money went for loan forgiveness for about 45 public and private HBCUs. So we feel very good about what the president has already done and equally proud about what we believe he will be continuing to commit to.

KELLY: As backdrop to everything you and I are talking about is, of course, the Supreme Court decision this year to overturn affirmative action, which is raising all kinds of questions about how that may gut race-conscious admissions. Do you expect to see more students looking to HBCUs? Are you expecting enrollment bumps?

ALLEN: We've seen enrollment bumps in Delaware State University for sure but in a number of our sister institutions. And I can tell you that really began in earnest right after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor...

KELLY: In 2020. Yeah.

ALLEN: ...And the racial - yeah, really the racial unrest that proceeded after all of that. And one pandemic, as I've often said, exposed another. And everybody was watching. And I think students of color have taken the opportunity, as they think about higher education, to take another look at historically Black colleges and universities where they don't have to apologize for who they are, where they come from or what they look like. So while I am very unhappy with the Supreme Court decision, we also want to be prepared for the continued bumps we're going to see in enrollment.

KELLY: That's Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University and chairman of the Biden Administration's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Tony Allen, thank you.

ALLEN: Thank you so much. I appreciate you.


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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.