President Barack Obama waves to supporters during a campaign rally at Norfolk State University on September 4, 2012. Norfolk State is one of two state historically black universities to get a boost in funding from Gov. Ralph Northam's proposed budget. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Virginia’s historically black colleges and universities have some of the lowest four-and five-year graduation rates in the state, falling well below 50% at most of the schools.

It’s an outcome driven in part by decades of inadequate funding for the large populations of low-income, first-generation and minority students the institutions serve, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday.

He’s proposed giving Norfolk State and Virginia State universities — the two public HBCUs here — $143 and $150 million, respectively, for capital improvements. It’s part of an $895 million item for similar improvements at all colleges and universities.

Northam also proposed money to support the state’s share of a federal grant at the two schools to train more students of color to become science, math and technology teachers.

“This spending plan makes generational investments in areas that have been underfunded for years, and ensures that we take care of our most vulnerable Virginians,” Northam told lawmakers when presenting his budget. “Many of our HBCUs attract students from the first generation in their families to attend college. Those students often need additional guidance and support, no matter what school they attend.”

His proposal still has to work its way through the General Assembly, where the House Appropriations committee is now chaired by Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, a three-time HBCU graduate. He has degrees from Winston Salem State, Virginia Union and Howard universities.

Norfolk State and Virginia State are generally funded in the same manner as other public colleges in the state. This year, the state is carving out money specifically for HBCUs as part of Northam’s overall goal of addressing “long-neglected needs.”

HBCUs are “game-changers” and “economic engines,” Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said. But over time, the schools have experienced some enrollment decline as educational integration happened.

“They really are very intentional about getting students of color (and) students who are economically disadvantaged,” Qarni said of HBCUs. “It’s not just about HBCUs, but it’s part of that package because they are serving a purpose for students with economic fragility.”

An increase of financial aid to public colleges earlier this year went to all public schools. The Legislative Black Caucus pushed to include more funding to help HBCUs during the last General Assembly session, a request that was amplified after a racist photo was found on Northam’s medical school yearbook. The governor committed to addressing racial inequities in the aftermath.

“It’s important to note that there were discussions prior to the yearbook incident to support HBCUs … but the level that showed up in the budget didn’t match the need we discussed,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg. She works in administration at Richard Bland College and is a graduate of Virginia State University.

“When you have an HBCU that’s trying to support (students’) needs, maintain the affordability and then also have the student supports in place, I think we have seen and continue to see that’s a significant challenge,” Aird said.

‘A long history of unequal funding’

Historically, black colleges have always fallen behind other schools when it comes to funding and resources, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor at Rutgers University and leading scholar on historically black colleges and universities.

“There’s a long history of unequal funding when it comes to black education,” Gasman said. “Because one of the things about wealth is that wealth begets wealth, so it you start out wealthy, you’ll get wealthier.”

HBCUs were created because of educational segregation or governments’ refusal to fund schools for black students. NSU, now the largest HBCU in Virginia with 5,601 students, came under state control in 1944. Virginia started VSU in 1882.

With limited economic opportunities, black founders could only do so much with their own money to launch schools. NSU, for example, started in a Norfolk YMCA building in 1935. Today, the school can’t provide the same kind of classroom experiences, internships and scholarships other schools can, said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, dean of NSU’s College of Liberal Arts.

Virginia’s general funding for colleges is about equal when comparing institutions of similar size. Christopher Newport University has a few hundred more students than VSU and a few hundred fewer than NSU. All three schools received a little more than $330 million each from the state in the current budget.

“Equal versus equity is the issue,” Newby-Alexander said. “If somebody has a 100-year head start on me … and then you just start funding me equally … you have infrastructure that I don’t have.

“There’s this fiction that, ‘Oh, you all have enough,'” she said. “That’s if I forget the fact that many of the majority institutions have a billion-dollar endowment so they’re drawing millions just from the interest. HBCUs do not have those deep pockets.”

According to a study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, NSU has a $24 million endowment as of 2018 and VSU has a $35 million endowment. Hampton, one of Virginia’s private HBCUs, has a $285 million endowment.

The University of Virginia, by comparison, has an endowment of $9.5 billion. The University of Richmond’s is $2.5 billion and Virginia Commonwealth University is $1.9 billion. William & Mary’s was $962 million as of last year.

Predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, have had the time and generational resources to build endowments and programs that attract more and wealthier students, Gasman said.

“That’s how HBCUs get into this situation where they don’t have as much funding, they’re not doing as well financially,” she said. “To be frank, one of the things that happens is that people look down on HBCUs … and that has to do with how racism works. It not only works against people, but it also works against institutions.”

HBCUs have a higher need than PWIs, Gasman said, because many students at HBCUs are low-income, a minority or the first in their family to attend college. All of those students typically need more help — like financial aid or advising — in a college environment.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, Virginia’s two public HBCUs had the highest percentage of students receiving a Pell Grant of any public college, one way to measure how much of the student population is considered low-income.

According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, 68% of students at NSU attended the school with the help of a Pell Grant in the 2017-2018 school year. Most of Virginia’s other HBCUs have a similarly high percentage of students using Pell Grants: 71% at both Virginia State and Virginia Union and close to 99% of students at Virginia University at Lynchburg receive Pell grants, university president Kathy Franklin said.

About 39% of students at Hampton University received Pell Grants last school year.

Funding structures threaten HBCUs’ ability to provide some of the most affordable college educations, Gasman said.

“We set up these institutions and then starved them from the get-go so I think it’s really important to make up for that,” she said. “If you want to do anything about equity, you have to disproportionately invest.”

SCHEV recently reworked its financial aid model, which determines how much money schools get to allocate to students. The changes should drive more money to schools with higher concentrations of low-income students, like HBCUs.

That’s a good change, Aird said, but it won’t be enough.

“At HBCUs you still see such a concentration of need, it still doesn’t go far enough,” she said.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.