How the 2023 Farm Bill Can Boost HBCUs, Tribal Colleges

Congress has a chance to level the playing field between historically Black and white land-grant universities.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Updated on August 18, 2023
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  • Congress must reauthorize the Farm Bill every five years.
  • Reauthorization is the primary path land-grant universities have to get federal funding.
  • Historically Black land-grant universities often get a fraction of what their white counterparts receive.
  • Advocates hope Congress will push for equitable funding for all land-grant institutions.

Historically Black land-grant universities have not been funded equitably to predominantly white land-grant institutions, but lawmakers have a chance to level the playing field this fall.

Congress must reauthorize the Farm Bill every five years, with the next reauthorization slated to occur by the end of this year. The Farm Bill is where all land-grant universities get the bulk of their federal funding for agricultural research and extension programs, but the appropriations have rarely been equitable between white land-grant institutions compared to Black and tribal colleges and universities.

A recent Century Foundation report found that, in 2021, Black land-grant universities (also known as 1890 institutions) could spend about $3,388 per full-time equivalent student on research. White land-grant institutions (1862 institutions) spent $10,774 per student on research, more than three times that of 1890 institutions.

More than 100 years after the 1890 Farm Bill established Black land-grant universities, these institutions are still fighting for equitable funding from both the federal government and state legislatures.

Denise Smith, a Century Foundation fellow and author of the report, told BestColleges that while progress has been made, this research funding gap shows that systemic racism still prevents 1890 institutions from reaching the same status as 1862 universities.

That's exemplified by the fact that no historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have the R1 research status — a designation given to top-level research institutions.

"At the end of the day, the underfunding is really an attempt to dismantle Black opportunity and education,” she said.

The History of Land-Grant Universities

There are three types of land-grant universities, each established by different federal laws:

  • Original land-grant universities: 1862 institutions
  • Black land-grant universities: 1890 institutions
  • Tribal land-grant colleges and universities: 1994 institutions

Each type of land-grant is referred to by the year it was established.

Mortimer Neufville, CEO of the nonprofit 1890 Foundation, told BestColleges that it's essential to understand how 1890 institutions were established to better understand inequities in funding.

Congress awarded large parcels of land to many states in 1862 through the first Morrill Act, establishing the original land-grant universities, he said.

In 1889, states returned to Congress asking for more money to enhance research and academic funding. The federal government said it would award more funds, but these institutions had to agree to desegregate and allow Black students to enroll.

Most states and institutions said no, and instead, Congress created a new set of land-grant institutions for Black students through the Morril Act of 1890.

"People who aren't fully aware are under the assumption that they were also given their parcels of land,” Neufville said. "They were designated as land grants, but with no parcels or resources."

He said it wasn't until 1968 that Black land-grant universities received federal funds for the first time. And even then, those funds weren't given to 1890 institutions but to 1862 institutions to manage for the HBCU land grants.

Today, 1890 institutions manage their own federal and state funds, Neufville said.

"We have grown quite a bit, but comparably speaking, not like the other land-grant schools,” he said.

State Matching a Significant Hurdle for HBCUs

When the federal government awards formula-based research funds to land-grant universities, these institutions must match 100% of all funds given. Schools primarily do this through funds awarded by the state.

However, many states rarely match these funds.

According to research from the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress (CAP), states shortchanged HBCU land-grant institutions by $22.3 million in 2021. The Century Foundation found that between 2011-2021, Black land-grant institutions lost out on $194.8 million due to states not matching the required amount.

1890 institutions can request a waiver so that they don't lose all federal funds when their state legislature fails to match.

This waiver doesn't exist for 1862 institutions. Smith of the Century Foundation said not only must states match funds 100% for 1862 schools, but more often than not, they provide significantly more funds than required. Meanwhile, Black land-grant institutions may only get a 50% match.

Six out of 19 states with an 1890 institution requested a waiver in 2022, according to CAP.

Neufville said 1862 institutions often have large lobbying arms, enabling them to campaign for large sums of state funds. 1890 institutions, meanwhile, have only a fraction of the endowments of their white counterparts, which leaves many HBCUs unable to convince legislators to fund their public colleges and universities equitably.

"We don't have the lobbying footprint that others have,” he said, "nor do we have the endowment that would allow us to progress."

CAP found that in some states, the numbers can be jarring. In 2022, Alabama requested a waiver for $828,000 in state funds for Tuskegee University's agricultural research programs. Meanwhile, it provided over $36 million in state funds to the agricultural experiment station at Auburn University, the state's predominantly white flagship. That was seven times the federal allocation for research capacity funding.

Neufville worries that removing the waiver won't force states to match federal funds fully. Instead, it may cause states to drop their 1890 institutions altogether.

"I'm being frank,” Neufville said. "That's what I've heard.”

Sara Partridge, a senior policy analyst at CAP, told BestColleges that her recommendation is not that Congress do away with the waiver program, but schools should instead share the distribution of waived funds. This means if a state wants to waive 50% of the required match for its 1890 institution, it must also waive the same percentage for its 1862 university.

State lawmakers would then be forced to either fully match funds for 1890 institutions or cut research funding for their flagship state universities, she said.

"These recommendations are very attainable and moderate,” Partridge said.

Federal Funding Lags, Too

State matching — or the lack thereof — isn't the only challenge HBCU land-grant institutions face.

Advocates say the federal government can do more to support 1890 institutions, too. Mainly, federal agencies should be more open to awarding research grants to these institutions.

While the Farm Bill provides formula-based funds to both 1862 and 1890 schools, these institutions also partner with individual agencies for research projects. If the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), for example, has a research partnership in mind, it will often look to land-grant universities to compete for the grant.

Historic underfunding of HBCU land-grants, however, means they are at a disadvantage.

"We are catching up, if you will, to some extent,” Neufville said. "We are still lacking in getting a reasonable share of the competitive grant program."

Winning grant proposals often comes down to faculty and facilities, he said. Professors at 1890 institutions often have larger course loads than faculty at their 1862 counterparts. This makes HBCUs a less desirable destination for grants as professors can’t dedicate significant time to research projects.

Additionally, 1890 institutions aren't given the same resources to improve on-campus infrastructure, he added. That's another reason government agencies may overlook these schools and instead award grants to predominantly white institutions, which have more up-to-date facilities.

Smith said agencies have begun to be more open to 1890 institutions in recent years. For example, she said Florida A&M University and Virginia State University have won sizable competitive grants.

Newer 1994 institutions, meanwhile, are even more behind. Many of these institutions are community colleges, Partridge said, which already puts them at a disadvantage for getting research grants.

However, these tribal colleges don't get any recurring funds from Congress through the Farm Bill, she said. They are only eligible for competitive grants, which means they often battle among themselves for the same pool of money, while 1862 and 1890 institutions can at least rely on a steady stream of funds.

"These institutions have a lot to contribute to the land-grant system,” Partridge said.

What's Next?

Lawmakers must reauthorize the Farm Bill every five years. The last reauthorization happened in 2018, meaning Congress must do so again by the end of this year.

Some programs from the previous reauthorization will expire after Sept. 30, Partridge said. Congress may make it a goal to pass the 2023 Farm Bill before that deadline, but if not, lawmakers may pass a continuing resolution to keep those programs funded until a final Farm Bill is complete.

Either way, all land-grant institutions will wait to see how Congress approaches the 2023 Farm Bill.

Advocates told BestColleges that they are hopeful lawmakers will keep HBCUs top of mind during negotiations. The recent overturning of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions makes the need to support HBCUs even more pertinent, Smith said.