Norfolk State University

Gov. Ralph Northam’s pledge to boost funding for the state’s two, public black universities — assuming the General Assembly agrees — will help counteract decades of state neglect and provide financial flexibility to campus administrators. 

What it won’t do is solve the ongoing conundrum facing historically black colleges and universities: How do they attract enough students in an integrated society, where African Americans face fewer racial restrictions than before? How do they find the money to operate institutions when many alumni are the first in their families to attend college and don’t have bundles of cash to donate to their alma mater?

Don’t get me wrong. Anytime hundreds of millions of dollars are earmarked for the nation’s roughly 100 HBCUs, it’s noteworthy and laudable. That’s especially true given the unequal treatment these universities have suffered for years across America.

“This funding will be a game-changer for the university and the students we serve,” said Norfolk State University President Javaune Adams-Gaston.

The governor’s proposal announced in mid-December — $143 million for Norfolk State University and $150 million for Virginia State University — isn’t chump change. Most of the money would bolster campus facilities. 

HBCUs “have been underfunded for far too long,” Northam noted in his budget proposal for 2020-22. “We are also allocating funds to help HBCUs provide additional support to their students.”

Marybeth Gasman, a professor at Rutgers University and leading scholar on HBCUs, told the Virginia Mercury there’s a long history of unequal funding in black education, which keeps black colleges lagging behind predominantly white institutions. 

You can also see this in the level of endowments. Virginia Commonwealth University has a $1.9 billion endowment, and William & Mary’s is $962 million

Norfolk State’s, however, is just under $35 million. And that’s a significant bump from 2000, when it was just $7.4 million.

The state of black colleges is no idle issue for me: 

I’m a 1981 B.A. graduate of Howard University, one of the most prominent and storied HBCUs in the country. All five of my siblings also earned undergraduate degrees at the private institution in Washington, D.C., and some of them even secured graduate degrees there. HU was founded in 1867, just after slavery’s end. Many black colleges opened during segregation.

Yet I’m sure many HBCU grads faced the same situation I did with my own children: They didn’t grow up with the same restrictions or racial barriers we faced. I lived in a predominantly black neighborhood growing up, but my children didn’t. 

None of my three children (now all in their late 20s) considered attending an HBCU. They had other options – including scholarship offers and higher income from my wife and me. My children instead attended predominantly white institutions, and they all graduated summa cum laude from their respective universities.

And I applauded their achievement, no matter where they matriculated. 

That doesn’t mean I’d trade my college experience for theirs. Mine was the right, supportive and financially available choice for the time. Friendships were forged for life. 

I also look with pride on fellow journalists who attended HBCUs. Their successes are mine, too.

Of course, the obstacles facing HBCUs aren’t new. Their ongoing existence has been the subject of many news articles and scholarly reports over the past decade. 

What’s just as clear is they still provide a foothold for many young people who may have faced substandard K-12 education. They offer a nurturing environment from faculty and administrators who have a vested interest in students. Those same young people may find circumstances cold and indifferent at mostly white colleges. 

HBCUs also provide an impressive number of black graduates in certain fields relative to their size. They represent about 3 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities, yet they prepare 50 percent of the nation’s African American teachers. They produce 23 percent of all black graduates and confer 40 percent of all STEM degrees. Their alumni account for 80 percent of black judges and 50 percent of black lawyers and doctors.

So it’s counterproductive to think they’re obsolete or unnecessary. Many students thrive on these campuses, and these institutions are attracting more white, Asian and Latino students than in years past — partly out of necessity to boost enrollment. 

The task for HBCUs, though, remains daunting. Several have closed across the country in the past few decades, usually because of problems with accreditation, recruitment or financing. Among them: St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville shut its doors in 2013

As a board member told me back then: “A university in this day and age can’t survive simply on legacy.”

More recently, Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., has tried to stave off closure and held a successful fundraising campaign. But the all-women’s HBCU still lost its accreditation after years of financial problems. Bennett, with an enrollment under 500, has since sued over the decision.

What does the future look like for HBCUs? It’s not a one-size-fits all question. 

Some will continue to thrive. Count Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, Florida A&M and Hampton among them. 

Others probably will close – and that might be the best route. As an accreditation official told me back in 2013, small, private institutions often face financial struggles, and it doesn’t matter whether they were HBCUs or PWIs. 

It’s the bulk in the middle that most need to fight to remain relevant. They must specialize in majors that students want, and come up with new ways to raise money and enrollment. 

Their challenges will continue, including at NSU and Virginia State. Increased funding from the governor and General Assembly is never guaranteed.