Can the farm bill help fix underfunding for HBCUs?


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Every five years, Congress is meant to reauthorize what is colloquially called the farm bill — a colossal spending package dealing with food and agriculture. In addition to provisions related to federal nutrition benefits, crop insurance and wool production, the bill is a significant source of funding for land-grant universities. 

“What people don’t realize is that while the farm bill is really heavily focused on providing support for feeding this nation, it is also critically providing funding for some of the largest universities across the country,” said Denise Smith, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank. 

That includes a group of 19 historically Black colleges and universities, often called the 1890 institutions after the law that led to their creation.

Today, these institutions serve more than 117,000 students. Three-quarters of their students are Black and 57% receive Pell Grants, according to a recent report from Smith. These institutions, Smith argued, make significant research contributions to the nation, educate underrepresented students and generate $5.5 billion in annual economic impact. 

But the 1890 institutions have dealt with chronic underfunding compared to predominantly White land-grant institutions. Advocates are hoping the upcoming farm bill may begin to rectify some of the funding inequalities.

“When you look at the White land-grant universities — Rutgers University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Tennessee, the Clemson universities of the world — they are vastly well-funded and better positioned than the Black land-grant universities in this nation,” Smith said. 

Why are 1890 institutions underfunded?

In 1862, Congress established the original 57 land-grant institutions, which focused on agriculture and mechanics. But those original institutions excluded Black students. In 1890, Congress passed legislation aiming to give similar educational opportunities to Black students, giving rise to the land-grant colleges that exist today. 

But they’ve been underfunded from the start.  

The original 1862 land-grant institutions received perpetual funding for their “endowment, maintenance and support” that historically Black institutions never got. Today, the 1862 institutions located in the same states as the 1890 institutions have average endowment assets per student more than six times higher than their HBCU counterparts, Smith found in her analysis.

Moreover, per-student research expenditures at the 1890 colleges are less than one-third of those at the 1862 land-grant institutions, where, on average, only 6% of the student body is Black. 

Part of the issue is the way 1890 institutions are funded. Nineteenth-century lawmakers created a formula to provide routine research funding for predominantly White land-grant institutions. But the HBCU land-grants didn’t receive these types of payments until 80 years later, in the 1960s. 

Today, the federal government must give research payments to the HBCU land-grant universities totaling at least 30% of what it authorizes for the original land-grant institutions. 

The universities must match the federal funds, which is typically done with state money. But the 1890 institutions can request a waiver for this requirement for up to 50% of the funds if they cannot secure a match. 

While that arrangement allows 1890 institutions to keep their federal funds, advocates say it lets state governments off the hook from fully funding their historically Black land-grant institutions. 

Up to half of legislatures each year deny full matches of the federal funds for their 1890 institutions, according to a report from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. In the past five years, the value of those missed funds has totaled around $90 million.

In 2022, for example, Florida declined to match $2.2 million in federal funds for its historically Black land-grant institution, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, forcing the institution to request a special waiver. The same year, Florida provided a 14-to-1 match of state-to-federal funds for the University of Florida, an 1862 land-grant. 


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