U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams speaks at Clark Atlanta University in May. Williams and other Georgia Democrats are pushing to boost the funding for historically Black colleges in the infrastructure bill working through Congress.
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U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams speaks at Clark Atlanta University in May. Williams and other Georgia Democrats are pushing to boost the funding for historically Black colleges in the infrastructure bill working through Congress.

Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

As the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s agenda works its way through Congress, Georgia’s Democratic representatives are calling for more money for historically Black colleges and universities.

“As the American Jobs and Families Plans have morphed into reconciliation legislation, President Biden’s proposed $45 billion for educational institutions including HBCUs has been downsized to $2 billion in the House’s version of reconciliation legislation,” Rep. Nikema Williams’ office wrote. “This will leave more work to do to make lasting investments in HBCU infrastructure.”

Williams’ name is at the top of an Oct. 19 letter sent to Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, urging him to take up a bill called the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act in the committee.

“We will continue to prioritize ensuring that reconciliation legislation includes language providing for equitable and robust investments in our HBCUs,” reads the letter, which is also signed by Georgia Reps. Lucy McBath, Sanford Bishop, David Scott, Hank Johnson and Carolyn Bourdeaux and others representing other states. “However, the limited funding for HBCUs that is currently possible through reconciliation will leave more work to do. Only by advancing the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act can we address the comprehensive infrastructural upgrades needed at our HBCUs.”

The IGNITE Act, introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in May, calls for a number of improvements to HBCU campuses, including broadband upgrades, preservation of historically significant buildings and renovation and repair projects for facilities. The sponsors have not yet included a cost estimate.

In a 2018 Government Accountability Office report, the nation’s HBCUs reported an average annual maintenance backlog of $67 million. A 2021 study from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund found that number had grown to $81 million.

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The problems are exacerbated by a lack of funding compared with schools that offer comparable academic rigor — according to HBCUmoney.com, the total endowment for all HBCUs is about $2 billion, while 55 non-HBCUs have endowments over that amount, including Georgia Tech, with $2.1 billion and Emory University with nearly $8 billion.

Many HBCUs have grown accustomed to getting by with less, said Atlanta Democratic Sen. Donzella James, who served alongside Williams before Williams was elected to Congress.

“We’ve always come from behind and had less money, and we did more with less money,” James said. “We educated so many students, I graduated from an HBCU. My husband graduated from Morehouse College, my mother and my sister from Spelman College, my other sister from Clark Atlanta, my dad from Tuskegee University. So we all saw the benefits. My son went to Savannah State College, and he went back last week for the homecoming, and he said there were so many alumni, they were just so proud, but it’s so few students now.”

Enrollment at HBCUs decreased by 7% between 2010 and 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Educationand the pandemic has only made things worse, James said.

“The colleges that schools like Morehouse or Clark or Spelman compete against, many of them have billion-plus dollar endowments, and that allows them to invest in their infrastructure in ways that we cannot, and that’s the direct product of the wealth gap that has been created over the centuries,” Morehouse President David Thomas at an event earlier this year.

State Sen. Gail Davenport, a graduate of Spelman College, said she would like to see the funding increase Williams and others are asking for.

Historically Black colleges and universities make up 3% of U.S. colleges and universities, but they enroll 10% of all African American students and produce nearly 20% of all African American graduates, including 25% of African American STEM graduates, according to the United Negro College Fund. And Georgia HBCU graduates can expect to earn an additional $980,000 over their lifetimes on average.

“I’ve seen what they have done over the years, they have produced most of our Black doctors, Black lawyers, and they continue to have an educational emphasis on all students so that they can succeed in life,” Davenport said. “I think at one time, we had about 230 HBCUs. Now we have a little over 100. And so without resources, these schools cannot provide, and I think it’s important, because the graduates add so much value to our society.”

For many young Black Georgiams, HBCUs also serve as a source of pride, a goal to aspire to and an outlet for community spirit, James said.

“My godmother and her sisters from Waycross, Georgia, they were first graduates of college, and they came up to Morris Brown College and Spelman,” she said. “And so I grew up knowing these women who were educated, who went to these schools, and they had camaraderie with their friends and pride, and they still have that pride and love. And even though my godmother just died at 102, she was still participating with the alumni. This is the kind of pride that you have when you go to an HBCU.”

A majority of Black HBCU students –58% — said they felt their professors cared about them as a person, compared with 25% of Black students at non-HBCUs, according to Gallup polling. And graduates of HBCUs were 11% more likely to tell pollsters they were thriving financially than their Black peers who graduated from non-HBCUs.

Historically Black colleges like Morehouse, Spelman and Clark offer the same quality education as other predominantly white institutions, Davenport said, but they need better facilities to compete for students.

“HBCUs provide excellent education for students, we just need more resources so that we can have first-class, not only dorms, but first-class science labs, and math, and fine arts,” she said. “So we need all of these things, but we need funding. You can see that some of the foundations are giving money, but we need the government to step in to help us.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.