At the moment, the fate of the Build Back Better Act is uncertain, with many suggesting that the only path forward is pulling out certain provisions of the bill to improve the prospects for its passage. Whatever course the legislation takes, its investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) must remain intact. The significant investments in HBCUs and MSIs contained in the version of the bill that passed the House this past fall would provide $6 billion for higher education programs and $3 billion for research and development infrastructure grants, representing a 20 percent increase in funding for these programs over the next five years, starting in fiscal year 2022. While the funding formulas for these two programs are not yet settled, HBCUs and MSIs stand to gain significant new resources through this funding. The package has significant support: over sixty HBCU presidents are urging the Senate to pass BBBA.
HBCUs have experienced inequities in funding for over a century. While the impact of the pandemic and a racial reckoning nationwide has raised the profile of these institutions, resulting in an increase in funding from private donors, these gifts cannot make up for the structural funding deficits experienced by these institutions. Thankfully, the Biden administration has prioritized HBCUs through this initial investment contained in the Build Back Better Act as a step to right those wrongs. This increase in funding is not only an investment in the institutions, but also in the students they serve: the passage of this legislation will enhance the research and development infrastructure at HBCUs and could result not only in reducing costs for students, but also student outcomes.
Recent headlines about large anonymous private gifts to HBCUs are welcome news indeed, but these gifts typically go to a few high-profile schools and can serve to distract attention from the historic inequities in funding and the need for support of lesser-known institutions. Furthermore, insufficient attention has been given to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the Black community and their colleges—many HBCUs have been forced to spend down what little endowment they have to weather the storm, and need a funding lifeline. The increase in funding for these institutions contained in the Build Back Better Act represents a more consistent investment in HBCUs by the federal government as a strategy to address their chronic underfunding as well as racial equity in higher education more broadly.
The increase in funding for these institutions contained in the Build Back Better Act represents a more consistent investment in HBCUs by the federal government as a strategy to address their chronic underfunding as well as racial equity in higher education more broadly.
The funding that is included in the Build Back Better Act has two grants, which would be awarded to address some of HBCUs’ most pressing needs: planning grants and implementation grants. Planning grants are to be used by schools to develop strategic plans for improving institutional research and development infrastructure; implementation grants are to be used for deferred maintenance and new physical infrastructure, hiring and retaining faculty, and creating research centers.
The increase in funding to HBCUs in the Build Back Better Act would not only help preserve these needed institutions, but also would work toward meeting several broader goals. In promoting these schools’ research and development infrastructure, the funding would help them educate and train future teachers that help diversify the teacher workforce nationwide, continue to be top producers of Black STEM graduates, and establish research centers that can address social, economic, and environmental disparities that impact the communities in which these institutions reside and serve. In particular, this funding would position the eleven HBCUs that conduct robust research to build capacity and to achieve the top research status, providing them with access to research dollars that may have otherwise been out of reach.
The Build Back Better Act was established on the premise of addressing the crumbling infrastructure across the nation, and nowhere is this need more crucial than at HBCUs. Other proposed legislation has underscored how critical the need is for infrastructure funds at these institutions. When the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act was introduced in the House last year, for example, its sponsors pointed out that HBCUs reported average backlogs of nearly $67 million in deferred maintenance at public HBCUs, which accounts for only half of the institutions. The extension of additional infrastructure funding to HBCUs through the Build Back Better Act will help preserve these vital institutions.
Every day that passes without a correction to the structural underfunding of HBCUs is a day lost.
Passing the Build Back Better Act with these new HBCU funding provisions intact would be a great achievement, creating a more consistent pipeline of funding to these schools and helping close the gaps in funding and equity in higher education. This act’s passage could be the beginning of a national recognition of the vital role that the nation’s HBCUs have served, and will serve going forward. Every day that passes without a correction to the structural underfunding of HBCUs is a day lost—the Build Back Better Act must be passed with the HBCU funding remaining intact.