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The Value Gap

Sept. 22, 2021, 8:21 a.m. EDT

Racial equality ‘was never baked in’ to higher education — but HBCUs have always been engines of mobility

By Jillian Berman

​​ The Value Gap  is a MarketWatch interview series with business leaders, academics, policymakers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.

When James Meredith attempted to start school as the first Black student at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962, he had to turn back before actually reaching the Oxford, Miss., campus.  

The crowd of thousands of protesters and hundreds of police officers gathered there threatened to overrun his escort of 25 federal marshals. When he finally did make it to the school a few days later, Meredith was met with a riot that ultimately left three people dead and several wounded. 

The Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris, in his new book, “The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal — and How to Set Them Right,” chronicles the legal and literal battles students like Meredith fought to integrate some of the nation’s colleges. And while Meredith’s story may seem like one from a bygone era, Harris persuasively makes the case that America’s higher education system has been unequal from the start — and that pattern persists today. 

Indeed, colleges that educate large shares of low-income students and students of color tend to be less well-funded than those that educate white and wealthier students.

A recent analysis from the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, provides a stark example of this phenomenon: Centuries of underfunding have meant that public Historically Black Colleges and Universities have an average endowment per full-time student that’s less than one-third the size of the endowment per full-time student at public non-HBCUs.

MarketWatch spoke with Harris about his book, as well as the implications of centuries of discrimination and inequality for higher education, for The Value Gap . The conversation has been edited and condensed:

MarketWatch: To start, maybe we can go to the beginning of the book. You open with that story where you personally witnessed the discrepancies in higher education funding, and I’m wondering at what point, or maybe it was then, you thought, “This is something I need to investigate further.” 

Harris: When I was at Alabama A&M [a Historically Black College in Huntsville, Ala.] I had seen that the University of Alabama in Huntsville [ where 72% of students receiving federal financial aid are white] had its new building and its pristine campus, and also learned that they had a larger endowment than Alabama A&M even though they had been open 75 years less time than Alabama A&M had.

After I had seen that and noticed it, it didn’t necessarily click as “This is something that I need to investigate further.” There’s always the piece of you that thinks, “Maybe I’m just being melodramatic; this is how every college student feels about another campus. Maybe the grass is greener on the other side.”

When I started covering higher education that first couple of weeks at the Chronicle [of Higher Education], it was really just digging into the ins and outs of federal higher education policy, knowing that I wanted to cover the sector of HBCUs. The more that I read, the more that I talked to folks, the clearer it became that my experience wasn’t an anomaly. 

MarketWatch: The book obviously goes back pretty far into American history and chronicles clearly all the ways that the government has inequitably funded colleges that educate mostly Black students. I’m wondering if in your mind, for lack of a better word, there’s an original sin, or some point where you feel like this pattern really started.

Harris: The Morrill Act of 1862 was really the first time that the federal government says, we’re going to make a major investment into higher education. We’re going to give states land expropriated land from Native Americans — that was taken through one-sided treaties, through murder and violence — and they give these states land to sell in order to fund an institution.

But the idea of equality or equity was never baked into those institutions; it was really to train a white workforce. Those institutions that were born out of that original investment basically shut out Black students.

MarketWatch: In the book you show that even though the pattern of inequity continued, the tools that the government used to do it changed with the times or changed with the different approaches to racism that we see throughout American history. 

Harris: One of the things that I write in the book is that discrimination is a contortion — it bends and twists to fit within the confines that it’s given.

In the late 1800s, those predominantly white institutions that were built from [the Morrill] Act needed more money. They go to the federal government, they ask for more money and the government says we’ll pass the second Morrill Act, but you states, you need to at least create a separate option for Black students. And this is around the same time that this idea of “separate but equal” is coming into the national lexicon. 

You have this string of litigation after states enshrine segregated education in the early 1900s, late 1800s, after they’re formally enshrining segregation in this idea of separate but equal. You have Black students, the NAACP, suing these states who are really fighting tooth and nail to defend their systems. 

I use Oklahoma as an example because the higher-education cases in Oklahoma in the 1940s into the early ’50s were really important in desegregating American schools. Once the doors were open at the University of Oklahoma, they put the first Black student almost literally in a hallway. Thurgood Marshall [then a lawyer, during a visit to the school] says, “That man is peeking into the classroom” so that they could keep the white students and Black students separated. When the Supreme Court says you can’t do that, they put a little rail up to preserve segregation. 

Oklahoma is not the only example. In Arkansas [when the first Black student enrolls] they have all of his classes in the basement, away from white students, at separate times. States fought tooth and nail as a way to maintain their segregated laws and hold on to that culture of segregation. 

MarketWatch: Obviously, before you started reporting the book you had expertise on the topic through your work. But was there anything that as you did your research really surprised you?

Harris: Knowing the amount of times that states actually looked into the fact that they were underfunding or under-resourcing their Historically Black Colleges or other institutions that Black students attended was actually a little bit jarring to me.  

It’s one thing if this is an issue that states don’t know they have and the federal government has just sort of overlooked — but they know, and they’ve known for a long time. 

In the early 1900s, the state of Kentucky brings out William T.B. Williams, then a professor at Hampton [a Historically Black College in Hampton, Va.],  and says, “Hey, can you look at our Historically Black College and see what it would take to bring it up to the standards of a Tuskegee [a Historically Black College in Tuskegee, Ala.] or a Hampton?”

He comes to campus and he doesn’t pull any punches: He says the girls’ dorm is fire-prone and it doesn’t have fire escapes, the boys’ dorm is in a mud puddle. The teachers are underpaid, the buildings are old. A lot of these things — not having enough resources to pay teachers a market rate, deferred maintenance, old buildings, mud puddles — these are issues that are pretty consistent throughout history. 

In the early 2000s in a settlement with [the state], Mississippi Valley State says we need a million dollars to go towards the drainage because you never built this proper drainage on our campus. The fact that states identified these issues several times over and never actually fixed them or even began to fix them, was actually quite jarring. 

MarketWatch: The book tells the story not just of these schools and cases, but of higher education more broadly. What are the legacies of this that we see today in higher education?

Harris: One of the things that I hope people understand and take away from the book is how vestiges of discrimination are propulsive, how they won’t go away on their own. 

In the book, I point to Auburn University, a place that in the 1980s, on the same day that Bo Jackson [a former Auburn running back who is Black] was awarded the Heisman as the best college football player in America, was named the most segregated institution in the state. 

They only had about 3% Black students when Bo Jackson was named the Heisman winner and they were about 5% Black students by 2002, but even today they have fewer Black students in total than they had at Auburn in 2002.  [Editor’s note: Auburn University did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Of currently enrolled students at Auburn who receive federal financial aid, 80% are white and 5% are Black, according to government data.]

Resource stratification at these institutions, but also discrimination that’s baked into these institutions, is propulsive, and that won’t go away by itself. States have sort of gotten complacent in their understanding that the federal government won’t enforce the laws it has on its books in terms of forcing states to eliminate those vestiges of discrimination in our higher education systems. As we move towards actually enforcing those laws, the better place the nation will be in terms of educational equity. 

MarketWatch: What is the impact on students of all these centuries, basically, of discrimination? 

Harris: If you go back to, say, the GI Bill, for instance, there’s often this assumption that Black students were just wholly shut out of the GI Bill.

There were only a select amount of institutions that Black students could attend so there were an untold number of Black students who may have been eligible for the GI Bill, but they actually couldn’t get into the institutions because HBCUs [were at] their institutional capacity. On top of that, [HBCUs] were being discriminated against, and so they weren’t provided the resources in order to expand that capacity. 

That is the current situation that we’re in: HBCUs are still doing an outsized job . Sixty percent of students who attend HBCUs are Pell-eligible, and so the lack of resources — not just for the institutions, but also for the wraparound services that they’re able to provide their students, being able to upgrade buildings and do some of that deferred maintenance so that students can have air conditioning so that they can have heat when it’s cold outside — these issues often get handed off as, “Oh, this is an issue of leadership.”

Yes, there may have been some leadership issues in some places at certain times, but you really have to look at the ways that discrimination manifests over time. And when it’s left to languish, the students end up suffering on the back end.

If the institutions were given a toothbrush at the very beginning, you’re able to brush your teeth and that keeps everything healthy. It keeps everything up to date and it’s $3.50.

But if you’re not given a toothbrush, then that turns into a cavity and then you have to go and get a filling. In order to fill it, you end up paying $150 or $200 when you would have paid $3.50 [for the toothbrush]. Then if you’re not able to go to the dentist to get your cavity addressed and get a filling, then it turns into a root canal and then it’s going to be $1,500 — and so it becomes even more expensive. 

I use that analogy to say that deferred maintenance, all of the discrimination, has built over time when these institutions were blocked from building wealth and the students that attended were really fundamentally discriminated against — and that has not necessarily gone away. 

MarketWatch: When people talk about higher education, they talk about it as something that’s really an engine for social and economic mobility, and I’m wondering, what do you think your book says about that? 

Harris: Data really points to some of the ways that Historically Black Colleges, minority-serving institutions, public regional institutions, community colleges actually do work as engines of socioeconomic mobility.  

One of the things that I hope my book adds to that conversation is the importance of these institutions and the ways that those institutions, which are such drivers of that mobility, have been stifled in their ability to grow.  If they hadn’t been shorted of all that funding, what could they have done? 

I hope that people really start to think deeply about that question in terms of what is owed to these institutions, which have done such yeoman’s work.

MarketWatch: In different parts of the book you visit and focus on Berea College. What is the importance of Berea College historically and why did it make sense to feature it in the book?

Harris: It was interesting not only for its time but even for now. Berea was founded in the middle of the 1800s by a Presbyterian minister who was really acting on the Bible, acting on chapter verse 2:27, “God made one blood all people of the earth.” He wanted to create an institution that was interracial, an institution that was coeducational, where people could live and work together. 

It was the first integrated, coeducational college in the South, and it was only broken apart by intentional state action, by a law that actually broke it apart. 

The interesting thing about Berea is that contrary to a lot of higher education, it has that idea of equality at its roots, and so … it’s been able to cobble back its original mission of educating a diverse student body.  

I wanted to point to Berea College to say that there were places that were thinking about educational equity, thinking about interracial education and with that idea of equity at their root and they were broken up by intentional state action. But they were able to get that back because of that foundation, and the rest of higher education is having to learn that anew. Maybe the learning process will be a little bit easier because they have that example of Berea that they might be able to follow.

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