America’s historically Black colleges and universities have been vastly underfunded compared to institutions that serve predominantly white students.

The government has estimated the disparity between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions to be about $12.6 billion. There are numerous factors at play, but racism is at the center, says Steven Mobley, an associate professor at Morgan State University who studies HBCUs. 

President Joe Biden’s administration recently highlighted the underfunding in letters sent to 16 governors, calling on them to increase state funding to land-grant HBCUs in their states. While Biden highlighted funding gaps over the last few decades, Mobley says the disparity stretches back even further, to the creation of public universities through the sale of public land in the 1800s under the Morrill Act.

Steven Mobley

States that created HBCUs under the Second Morrill Act of 1890 were required to equally distribute funds between the universities and their white counterparts. That hasn’t really happened. We spoke with Mobley to learn more. The conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

Tatyanna McCray: For those who don’t know, can you explain for readers the tie between state legislatures and funding at the higher education level:

Steven Mobley: The state sets the budgets, and it allocates the dollars to different sets of institutions. State funding is actually down across the board currently, but there is a major difference between Black and white institutions. [Funding] is driven more towards providing for the white institutions over [HBCUs] and has been this way for a while, historically speaking. 

If you’re familiar with it, can you speak to where racial injustice might fit into this pattern of underfunding?

It’s racism. They’re legislated into poverty, and HBCUs are treated just like Black people. Black is in the name — it can’t be ignored. 

How did you find your chosen area of practice?

I was an administrator at different universities and decided to go back to school to pursue another degree, and knew that I wanted to explore different areas of history and contemporary topics, including the history of HBCUs. 

Can you speak at all to where state constitutions mesh with higher education funding? If it’s compulsory in nature, why does it matter?

I think that legislators set the budgets, for sure. But when it pertains to HBCUs in particular, it was legislated for HBCUs to be defunded and underfunded, basically being legislated into poverty. So when you fast-forward to today, you literally have state level officials underfunding HBCUs. There have even been some public HBCUs that have been fined and chastised. It’s as if they’re upset that Black students are choosing to attend HBCUs — it is viewed as a threat. 

Why should taxpayers care about the underfunding of public institutions of higher education?

Because it directly affects them. When people say elections matter, they do —  those who are elected are making the decisions on how funding will affect higher educational institutions. If they do not care about HBCUs, it will trickle down to affecting the resources and funding the university needs.

This story was co-published with Capital B, a Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country. Visit them at or on Twitter @CapitalBNews

Tatyanna McCray is a fellow with the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus