Hess says the reason for such poor scores could be many HBCU students often come from low-income backgrounds and are first-generation college attendees. But because “nobody looks,” he said, there is too little research on the topic to know for sure.
“It’s politically incorrect to talk about,” the Center for College Affordability’s Anthony Vedder told TheDC. Vedder said when he tried to raise the issue with black educators, “I almost got chased out of the room.”
Students want to attend HBCU’s because of their historical prestige, said Robert Morse, the data director of U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings. Because many black students want only the HBCU experience, and the schools receive special federal designation and support, Morse explained, his magazine ranks them separately from mainstream colleges and universities.
Robert McCluskey, an education and child policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, pointed out that unlike other institutions of higher learning, HBCUs receive direct federal funding to cover their basic operating costs. In fact, HBCUs are a line item in the federal budget.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 guaranteed support for HBCUs, most of which were established in the decades following the Civil War. Intended to educate freed slaves, they are products of the Jim Crow South, when former slave states created segregated post-secondary public schools rather than integrate white ones. Church organizations were founding nominally private all-black schools, like Morehouse and Spelman, at the same time.
The Department of Education reports that in 2008, five federal agencies and departments awarded more than 10 percent of their higher education spending to HBCUs. The Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Housing and Urban Development each contributed more than 30 percent of their higher education spending. HBCUs received 33 percent of all federal support for facilities, and 14 percent for un-categorized “other” support that year.
The next year, 2009, the most recent one for which figures are available, HBCUs also received a disproportionate amount of federal support, though 105 of them made up just one percent of America’s total number of accredited institutions of higher learning. Justice awarded 72 percent of its funds budgeted to higher education initiatives to HBCUs in 2009.
As HBCUs continue to lose tuition money, due to stricter federal student lending rules, grants from federal agencies have become a stopgap measure to continue funding them. Yet the grants present a new problem. In 2011, Morehouse paid $1.2 million to settle a Justice Department investigation of the college’s misuse of NASA funds.
Then in 2012, the Department of Education awarded $227.9 million to HBCUs around the country to “help these important institutions continue to provide their students with the quality education they need to compete in the global economy.” Morehouse received $2.3 million.