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How to Put the HBCU Story in Context

Journalists share strategies for reporting on the chronic underfunding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Photo credit: Michael Jung/Bigstock

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If the disparity in underfunding Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) could be told through two schools, consider Texas Southern University (TSU) and the University of Houston (UH). Both started around the same time with similar missions, serving populations with similar economic backgrounds. The colleges were even located across the street from each other.

But that’s where the similarities end. TSU is a HBCU, and UH is not. For decades, Texas officials funded these two state institutions at dramatically different levels, a disparity that is evident today, particularly in the schools’ infrastructure.

Journalists Brittany Britto and Adam Harris explored the long history of funding disparities for HBCUs across the country during a session at the Education Writers Association’s fall 2021 Higher Education Seminar. Britto is a features enterprise reporter at the Houston Chronicle, and Harris wrote the book, The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal – and How to Set Them Right.

Britto, who previously covered higher education, published a five-part series examining the historical pattern of underfunding at HBCUs in Texas. Seeing the way race and racism shape what an institution gets or doesn’t get was very illuminating, she said.

George Floyd’s death and the social justice protests that followed renewed the spotlight on HBCUs and triggered a lot of philanthropic giving, but philanthropy alone can’t overcome more than a 100 years of systemic neglect and underfunding. Many schools and their students are playing catch up, especially when it comes to enrollments, campus infrastructure, technology and research.

Harris and Britto outlined three things education reporters can do to make this story relevant to a broader audience.

Follow the Money.

The HBCU story is central to the American experience. While they only enroll about 9% of the nation’s Black undergraduates, their alumni account for at least half of all Black lawyers, doctors and other professionals. Nonetheless, staying in school is a challenge for many students that lack generational wealth and advantages of their white counterparts.

Although these colleges and universities receive federal and private funding, that money is often earmarked for specific areas, such as research and development and must be spent in a designated time period.

Many HBCUs typically have millions of dollars in deferred maintenance or needed repairs, panelists said.

When students struggle to afford basic necessities like tuition and transportation, things like campus technology and building improvements often take a backseat. The chronic underfunding means HBCUs are also understaffed, and so ask instructors, for example, to teach more classes each semester than are typically required at predominantly white institutions, the journalists said.

Establish Trust and a Base of Knowledge.

The journalists said they occasionally encountered some resistance during their reporting on HBCUs because some HBCU staff and students felt the media had a bad news bias and only covered HBCUs in crisis. In addition, many within the HBCU community worry most reporters don’t really understand HBCUs’ legacies and significance. Building connections and trust with these institutions is key to reporting with authority and sensitivity, the journalists said.

Harris recommended that reporters who want to get a more complete sense of HBCU history and find important details should explore digitized newspaper archives.

“Even a little bit of that work is important and can help enrich and provide better detail for your story,” Harris said. That was the case in one such report Harris found from around 1935, when a Missouri legislator first said he’d spare no expense to support HBCUs – before reversing himself later in the debate to question whether a financial allotment was a bit too much.

“You can clearly see where the funding was being withheld and the ways that the conversation would evolve,” he said.

And, when you’re writing, try to explain commonly used terms that some readers might not be familiar with – even terms as basic as “HBCU,” Harris and Britto advised.

Put the HBCU Story in the Context of Current Events.

COVID-19’s impact on colleges and universities and President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan have major implications for the future of HBCUs.

Reporters may want to cover these timely topics: 

  • Disconnected campus communities: The coronavirus pandemic hit students and their families hard financially. But social distancing requirements also disrupted the community spirit for which HBCUs are known, limiting interactions and bonding experiences for incoming freshmen, according to Britto.For example, Britto wrote a story about the return of marching bands – a major part of life at HBCUs – who were forced to practice in isolation or through computer screens during the pandemic.
  • Federal funding questions: Track the federal picture when it comes to funding. For example, HBCU supporters, including Congresswoman Alma Adams of North Carolina, expressed disappointment in potential cuts to the spending allotment for historically Black institutions in September. Adams is now “on board” with updated funding proposals for HBCUs, she said.There’s a lot of interest in funding for HBCUs and minority serving institutions right now, but it remains to be seen whether that translates into the type of funding schools need.