Arkansas, other states urged to address funding disparities for land-grant HBCUs

FILE — The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff campus is shown in this Jan. 20, 2021, file photo. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was one of 16 governors nationwide to receive a letter urging states to rectify the disparity in funding between land-grant Historically Black Colleges and Universities and their non-HBCU land-grant peers.

The letter to Sanders, signed by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, noted that the "University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the 1890 land-grant institution in your state, while producing extraordinary graduates that contribute greatly to the state's economy and the fabric of our nation, has not been able to advance in ways that are on par with [the] University of Arkansas [in Fayetteville], the original Morrill Act of 1862 land-grant institution in your state, in large part due to unbalanced funding."

"The governor is proud of the rich tradition at UAPB and will continue to support the Golden Lions," said Alexa Henning, a spokesperson for the governor. "A threatening, politically charged letter from the Biden administration bureaucrats won't change her commitment to working with our partners in the legislature to continue supplying all students with high quality education and learning opportunities."

There are HBCU land-grant institutions in 18 states, but Delaware and Ohio have equitably funded their respective universities.

Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia received letters regarding the $12-billion-plus disparity in funding between land-grant HBCUs and their non-HBCU land-grant peers in their states, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Under the Second Morrill Act of 1890, states choosing to open a second land-grant university to serve Black students were required to provide an equitable distribution of state funds between their 1862 and 1890 land-grant institutions. The former were founded through the First Morrill Act of 1862 which provided states with federal land that could be sold to support the colleges.

"The longstanding and ongoing underinvestment in the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff disadvantages the students, faculty, and community that the institution serves," states the letter to Sanders, dated Monday. "Furthermore, it may contribute to a lack of economic activity that would ultimately benefit Arkansas. It is our hope that we can work together to make this institution whole after decades of being underfunded."

The letter notes that it would be "ambitious" to address the funding disparity over the course of several years in the state budget -- although "we wholeheartedly support" that effort if the governor and legislature were so inclined -- but suggests "a combination of a substantial state allocation toward the 1890 deficit combined with a forward-looking budget commitment for a two-to-one match of federal land-grant funding."

"To date, while your state has sufficiently appropriated funds to" UA-Fayetteville, including meeting or exceeding designated one-to-one federal match funding, "it has not done so for" UA-Pine Bluff, the letter states. "We are committed to working with you to bring balance to the state investments in institutions that have been severely underfunded through the years."

While HBCUs represent 3% of postsecondary institutions, they enroll about 10% of all Black college students, and generate close to $15 billion in economic impact and more than 134,000 jobs annually in the local and regional economies they serve, the letter notes.

Inequitable funding of UA-Pine Bluff "has caused a severe financial gap; in the last 30 years alone, an additional $330,935,712 would have been available for the university" -- National Center for Education Statistics data was used to help determine amounts -- funds which could've supported infrastructure and student services and would have better positioned the university to compete for research grants.

UA-Fayetteville recently reported a new fall enrollment high for the third-consecutive year; UA-Pine Bluff, however, is down 11% in fall enrollment from last year, which was down 7% from the fall of 2021. UA-Fayetteville's fall headcount is 32,140 students -- the university has more than doubled enrollment over the past quarter century -- while UA-Pine Bluff's headcount is 2,117.

This year, state appropriation is roughly 57% of UAPB's Unrestricted Educational and General Budget, according to Mary Hester-Clifton, the university's director of communications and institutional advancement.

UA-Pine Bluff "has been able to make remarkable strides and would be much stronger and better positioned to serve its students, your state, and the nation if made whole with respect to this funding gap," the letter states. It is "encouraging" that "in recent years your state budget has taken steps to address this historic underinvestment, and it is our hope that we can work together to start a dialogue and develop a plan of action to make this institution whole after decades of being underfunded."

"This is a situation that clearly predates all of us; however, it is a problem that we can work together to solve," the letter notes. "In fact, it is our hope that we can collaborate to avoid burdensome and costly litigation that has occurred in several states."

Last year, nearly 89% of UA-Pine Bluff's students were Black, and more than 60% of the faculty are Black, according to UA-Pine Bluff.

At UA-Fayetteville, 4.6% of students enrolled were Black last year.

"Unacceptable funding inequities have forced many of our nation's distinguished Historically Black Colleges and Universities to operate with inadequate resources and delay critical investments in everything from campus infrastructure to research and development to student support services," Cardona said in a news release from the Department of Education.

"The Biden-Harris Administration is proud to have made record investments in our HBCUs, but to compete in the 21st century we need state leaders to step up and live up to their legally required obligations to our historically Black land-grant institutions."

When states don't match federal dollars afforded to Black land-grant schools, the schools must seek a waiver from the agriculture department to keep their federal funding. Monday's letters to governors were sent at a time when Congress is attempting to reauthorize the Farm Bill, which provides federal resources to support land-grant universities.

"Some of the brightest minds and most impactful advancements in food and agriculture have taken root in our country's 1890 land-grant universities, and I'm incredibly proud of the partnership USDA maintains with these invaluable institutions," Vilsack stated in the education department news release. "We need governors to help us invest in their states' HBCU's at the equitable level their students deserve, and reflective of all they contribute to our society and economy."

"The documented discrepancies are a clarion call for governors to act without delay to provide significant support for the 1890 land-grant institutions in their respective states," Vilsack added. "Failing to do so will have severe and lasting consequences to the agriculture and food industry at a time when it must remain resilient and competitive."