Former governor, education secretary call for more investment in Virginia’s historically Black colleges

By: - June 11, 2021 12:30 am

Norfolk State University, one of Virginia’s historically Black colleges and universities. (Norfolk State)

As Virginia lawmakers consider how to spend more than $4.3 billion in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan, two former state leaders are calling for more investment in the state’s historically Black colleges and universities.

Former Gov. Doug Wilder and Jim Dyke, who served as Virginia’s first Black secretary of education in Wilder’s administration, called for the infusion of money this week in a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam and a bipartisan group of legislative leaders. 

“The governor and General Assembly have the responsibility to immediately provide Virginia’s four HBCUs with significant and ongoing funding,” they wrote. “This commitment should include initial grants of $50 million to each HBCU for scholarships, recruitment, retention, academic programs and capital projects as provided to non-HBCUs.”

It’s not the first time there have been calls to provide more funding to the schools, which include Norfolk State University, Virginia State University, Hampton University and Virginia Union University. In 2019, Northam proposed an additional $293 million investment in Norfolk and Virginia State — two public HBCUs — to “level the playing field” with other universities. 

As the Mercury reported, the schools had some of the lowest four- and five-year graduation rates in the state, coupled — in many cases — with declining enrollment.

Many of those challenges date back to the creation of HBCUs. Most emerged from modest beginnings due to the state’s refusal to integrate education or fund schools for Black students. Wilder said Norfolk State, now Virginia’s largest HBCU, originally started in a YMCA as a branch of Virginia Union University. VUU also weathered intentional segregation efforts, including the construction of Richmond’s Interstate 95 and Interstate 64 corridor. The construction deliberately separated the university from the city’s historically Black Jackson Ward neighborhood, researchers found.

Virginia Union University is a private HBCU in Richmond. It’s one of three private HBCUs in the state. (Mechelle Hankerson/ The Virginia Mercury)

“So the question is, when are we going to acknowledge that not only was it wrong, but it was never improved upon to the extent that it should have been?” Wilder said.

He met with the state’s four HBCUs ahead of a planned special session this summer to allocate Virginia’s ARP funding — “one of the largest economic recovery efforts ever,” according to a joint statement from Northam and General Assembly leaders. 

Higher education lost billions during the COVID-19 pandemic, but HBCUs were already more financially vulnerable. The schools have smaller endowments and a much greater percentage of low-income students than other universities, the Mercury has reported. And while many state colleges saw negligible drops in enrollment — or even increases — both Norfolk and Virginia State lost students during the pandemic, according to data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Dyke, though, said the request for funding was equally important as an economic opportunity. A recent report from the national think tank Education Reform Now found that Virginia accounts for a third of the 15 worst-ranked public colleges and universities in Pell Grant enrollment. The grants are given to students with “exceptional” financial need and — unlike other federal aid — don’t have to be repaid.

The same report found that only three of Virginia’s public universities enroll a proportion of Black and Hispanic students that’s equal to their total makeup of the college-aged population. Two of those schools are HBCUs. That makes direct aid especially important, Dyke said, given the disproportionate role they play in educating underserved communities.

“There’s so much more than needs to be done, especially when you factor in that we’re trying to create a stronger, better-prepared workforce,” he said. “Other institutions have been woefully lacking in enrolling minority and low-income students.”

Over the last few years, there has been increased investment in the state’s public HBCUs. The most recent budget includes more than $20 million for Norfolk State and Virginia State, according to SCHEV — including roughly $10 million for affordability pilot programs aimed specifically at Pell Grant-eligible students living within 25 miles of the universities.

But both Wilder and Dyke said it doesn’t make up for decades of underfunding and fewer resources that have left HBCUs at a disadvantage. They’re also calling for the state to boost its overall investment in underserved students. In addition to $50 million grants for each of the state’s four HBCUs, they’re asking legislators to commit at least $1,500 to $2,000 per student in financial aid and tuition assistance grants. Those dollars would go to all of Virginia’s colleges and universities for each Pell Grant student they enrolled.

“Let’s provide some financial incentives for them to go out and do a better job,” Dyke said. “And underneath all of this is accountability. We need to hold these institutions accountable for educating all students.”

Other states have set a precedent for investing substantially both in HBCUs and underserved students. Last month, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper asked the state to spend $350 million of its ARP dollars on scholarships for students whose families make $60,000 or less a year. Maryland just recently announced a $577 million settlement with its four HBCUs after a group of alumni sued over inequality in the state’s higher education system. 

“We’re saying that Virginia can act now,” Dyke said. Higher education isn’t mentioned in a list of priorities outlined in the joint statement from Northam and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly. But one senior budget chair has already expressed support for funding HBCUs.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“Virginia has underfunded them for too long,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chair of the chamber’s Finance Committee. “The additional federal funding we are receiving will make righting this historic wrong not only possible but essential.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.