Response to WSJ Jason Riley comments about Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

On September 28th Jason Riley wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Black Colleges need a new mission.” Despite the title that would lead one to believe that Riley was advocating for a change in the mission of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, (HBCUs). Riley’s article was nothing short of a sweeping condemnation of HBCUs as a whole and a call for the concept to be done away with.

As an individual who’s father worked for two HBCUs (Hampton University and Norfolk State University) and who attended two HBCUs (North Carolina A&T and Norfolk State University) I cannot let his assertion that HBCUs be consolidated and/or repurposed as community colleges stand unchallenged.

First of all HBCUs are in fact community colleges that have historically catered to the Black Community and for that reason they are as much pillars to the Black Community as the Black Church. Jason Riley cites the position of HBCUs without any true understanding of the history of this country which has left HBCUs in their now weakened state. It is true that HBCUs were created in the wake of the Civil War as a means for Black people to be able to access higher education in a segregated society (read a society in which majority White universities would not admit Black students). As such many HBCU’s are land grant institutions wholly dependent on the federal government to fund them; however the federal government funds the institutions by giving block grants to the states and allowing the states to appropriate the money according to state priorities. Due to widespread segregation most of the HBCU’s are located in the South where many legislatures were historically hostile to the idea of HBCUs and systematically appropriated less money to them than to White public institutions. Thus, HBCUs have always had fewer resources than other schools. A perfect example of this is in North Carolina where North Carolina State receives around $400 million from the state government while North Carolina A&T receives $100 million. That being said it has been a miracle that HBCUs have found ways to operate successfully (and a great many of them have been successful) for over 150 years. It is not a stretch to think that conditions are the same in many other states across the nation. Furthermore, HBCUs by definition have always had students with less monetary resources and released graduates to a society that until 1970 was overtly resistant to the economic advancement of Black people. Therefore, to compare the endowment of HBCUs to institutions such as UT or an Ivy League school is a complete joke and a person as allegedly intelligent as Mr. Riley should be ashamed to make such a comparison. Moreover, with the aforementioned discrepancy in federal funds it is the height of absurdity to imagine that HBCUs could provide services at the levels of any of these schools.

The problem here is not the dedication of the administration or the concept of HBCUs but rather the lack of funds and assistance these universities have received due to a systematically biased system of appropriations. If any institution has failed it is the state governments in ensuring that HBCUs have the funds to compete on an even playing field with majority universities. In addition, the federal government has failed up until this point to rectify the situation. By earmarking 850 million to these institutions President Obama has shown that he understands that a major part of the problem with HBCUs is a lack of funding. It will be interesting to see if HBCUs actually get all of the money that has been promised to them.