Denise Smith’s recent TCF report “Achieving Financial Equity and Justice for HBCUs” is a timely and illuminating analysis of the relationship between nineteenth and twentieth century federal higher education policies and twenty-first-century historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) endowments. While a healthy endowment is not the only indicator of an institution’s financial stability or fragility, endowments matter. Investment in infrastructure, capital improvements, and the bond market—essential for a thriving institution—suffers when endowments that could support the financial leveraging of potential revenue-generating assets are not available. The call for a federal budget that includes strategic investment in HBCU endowments is warranted, and like the 1890 Morrill Act and HEA’s Title III Part B, will have a lasting impact on the vitality of HBCUs well into the twenty-second century.
HBCUs occupy a sacred and contested space in the United States. Sacred because of the sacrifice and endurance of those who founded and sustained them and contested because since their mid-nineteenth century founding (the earliest founded in 1837), HBCUs have been continuously asked to justify their existence in a nation that undervalues them yet is a beneficiary of their work. The constant requirement to prove their value, argue their relevance, and, most recently, demonstrate their ROI (return on investment) has relegated HBCUs to a defensive posture that is at best unnecessary, and at worst supports a fictive narrative that is institutionally and culturally destructive.
The constant requirement to prove their value, argue their relevance, and, most recently, demonstrate their ROI (return on investment) has relegated HBCUs to a defensive posture that is at best unnecessary, and at worst supports a fictive narrative that is institutionally and culturally destructive.
Contemporary frameworks such as ROI that are borrowed from the corporate world affirm this posture, permeating discourse and expectations about higher education outcomes (e.g., retention and graduation rates, student debt, job placement), and informing federal policy and funding decisions. However, these expected outcomes are in large part dependent on an institution’s ability to provide the resources necessary for their students to achieve favorable outcomes. Title III Part B capacity-raising funds help to ensure that HBCUs provide such support. Title IV funds expand access to deserving students through improved affordability. These federal programs have invested in HBCUs, and the ROI for the nation is evident. Yet as the TCF report reveals, the residual impact of more than a century of inequitable funding policies (affirmed and implemented by state and federal laws) still lingers. So, what about the ROI for HBCUs themselves, who since their inception have invested in the nation? How can the federal government incorporate ROI reciprocity for HBCUs in their policy proposals?
Return on investment cannot be fully measured independently of history and other contextual factors that give it meaning. Nor can it be calculated within a fixed time frame that minimizes or ignores the dynamic nature of the human experience and the institutions in which humans exist. Such calculations, when uncritically extrapolated, have the potential to do more harm than good. When analysis of HBCUs is grounded in an exclusive ROI framework, institutionally damaging policies emerge that perpetuate inequity rather than encouraging solutions to eradicate it.
The Biden–Harris administration’s Build Back Better Plan proposes tuition subsidies, increases in Title IV and Title V funding, and upgrades to HBCUs’ research infrastructures. While these are all needed investments, an explicit and targeted plan with allocated funds to increase HBCU endowments will go a long way to reduce a federally created higher education equity gap that is antithetical to the good of the nation. Adam Harris’ recently published The States Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal—and How to Set Them Right documents in empirical detail how the convergence of racism and federal policies have historically restricted HBCUs (public and private) from flourishing financially. His recommendation for investments in HBCU endowments is sound policy. Strong endowments support innovative academic programs, research initiatives, and institutional scholarships. Strong endowments encourage institutional agility. Strong endowments attract potential donors.
Strong endowments encourage institutional agility. Strong endowments attract potential donors.
On the heels of the recent social upheaval and demands for racial justice, HBCUs are garnering positive attention from philanthropists, corporations, politicians, and others. It is an opportune time to replace frameworks like ROI, from which only destructive federal higher education policies have emerged, with measures (or, to use yet another popular term, KPIs) that better identify and capture institutional inputs that result in impactful outcomes for HBCU students and communities. Perhaps this will result in a reciprocal ROI framework that HBCUs deserve.