Predominantly Black institutions are oft forgotten (opinion)

We applaud the awareness of funding disparities and inequities long experienced by the rising minority-serving institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions. This attention on the needs of MSIs is vital because of MSIs’ significant role in creating an equitable economic opportunity for people of color. However, as the country faces a crisis in supporting Black students that started before the pandemic and has only accelerated since 2020, it is urgent that predominantly conversation black institutions, like the ones we lead, also are at the forefront of higher education equitys.

PBIs, like other MSIs, are recognized by the US Department of Education for providing underserved and underrepresented communities with significant access to higher education and experience comparable funding challenges. Unfortunately, thus far, we have not been part of national media coverage or dialogue. Simply put, that needs to change. Only by including PBIs in the national higher education equity conversation can the nation fully understand and meet the needs of Black students.

What Are PBIs?

We often find that, without national media coverage, many people are unfamiliar with PBIs, who we are and what our PBI classification means. PBIs are higher education institutions that:

  • Serve at least 1,000 undergraduate students;
  • Have an undergraduate enrollment that is at least 40 percent African American and at least 50 percent low income or first generation; and
  • Have a low average expenditure per full-time undergraduate student in comparison with other institutions offering similar instruction.

There are currently 67 PBIs, which are a mix of four-year universities and two-year colleges, urban and rural, aimed at educating the underserved. In 2018, PBI accounted for 3 percent of all postsecondary institutions but enrolled 9 percent of all African American college students.

PBIs are statutorily required to have student populations that are predominantly low-income and first-generation students, and they face unique challenges related to college readiness, financial need, retention and graduation rates. PBIs also face challenges with students transitioning from full- to part-time status due to lack of childcare and financial support.

Together, our nation’s PBIs and HBCUs are uniquely committed to serving Black students. While PBIs and HBCUs serve similar populations, they are distinct; an institution cannot be both an HBCU and a PBI. In fact, students who attend PBI community colleges often transfer to HBCU undergraduate programs, and students who attend four-year PBI institutions often go on to attend HBCU graduate programs.

The pandemic has unfortunately presented additional challenges for already underfunded PBIs. While overall enrollment enrollment has declined nationally during the pandemic, the largest enrollment declines were with the low-income and minority student populations that PBIs serve. PBI status (and access to PBI funding) depends upon enrollment of Black students. When enrollment falls, PBI design and funding access are negatively impacted.

The Federal Funding Dilemma

PBIs need strong federal support. As this country continues to grapple with issues of equity in higher education, efforts to strengthen all higher education institutions that support minority students must also focus on PBIs. In fiscal year 2021, PBIs received only 2.3 percent of the total funding that went to MSIs, despite enrolling about 5 percent of students at MSIs.

Further, PBI funding is unstable. Historically, funding was available through the PBI Master’s Degree program, but that funding lapsed in 2014.

To be clear, all MSIs, including HBCUs and HSIs, need stronger federal support. Conversations and efforts to increase funding for and to strengthen HBCUs and HSIs must continue. However, in order to similarly strengthen and create equity for the approximately 308,000 students served by PBIs in the United States, policy and funding equity conversations must expand to include increased funding for PBIs. This is especially critical as the impact of the pandemic on Black and African American students continues to come to light.

We are encouraged by a possible funding opportunity for PBIs that could be created if the Build Back Better legislation passes; However, efforts to pass this important bill have stalled. To enact proper support for higher education institutions serving Black students, PBI funding must be increased to adequate levels through proper funding streams that remain funded year after year. A small group of PBI presidents has been ringing the bell about the need for Congress to consider increasing current PBI funding streams, replenishing lapsed funding streams and developing new opportunities for funding through future legislation. We are encouraged by the interest so far and look forward to continuing to educate the higher education community and Congress on PBI needs. We appreciate the important work in highlighting MSI funding equity issues; we hope that PBIs will be included in the dialogue as well. Remedying PBI funding disparities will only happen once we are fully at the table and a part of the conversation.

HBCUs PBIs
Definition Institutions founded prior to 1964 for the purpose of providing education to Black American students. Institutions incorporated into the Higher Education Act in 2008, which enroll at least 50 percent low-income or first-generation students and serve at least 40 percent Black American students.
Number of institutions Approximately 100 Approximately 67
Total enrollment ~279,000 ~308,000*
Approximate 2021 federal program allocations
  • Strengthening HBCUs Program $337.6M
  • Strengthening HBCUs Mandatory Funding $80.2M
  • Strengthening HBCU Master’s Program $11M
  • Strengthening Historically Black Graduate Institutions Program $87.3M

Total = Approximately $516M

  • Strengthening PBIs Program $14M
  • Strengthening PBIs Mandatory Funding $14M
  • Strengthening PBI Master’s Program $0

Total = Approximately $28M

* Inside Higher Ed analysis of Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System 2019–20 enrollment data, https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/use-the-data. Analysis conducted March/April 2022.

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