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Former governor, education secretary call for more investment in Virginia’s historically Black colleges

Norfolk State University
Norfolk State University(Virginia Mercury)
Published: Jun. 11, 2021 at 7:49 AM EDT
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As Virginia lawmakers consider how to spend more than $4.3 billion in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan, two former state leaders are calling for more investment in the state’s historically Black colleges and universities.

Former Gov. Doug Wilder and Jim Dyke, who served as Virginia’s first Black secretary of education in Wilder’s administration, called for the infusion of money this week in a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam and a bipartisan group of legislative leaders.

“The governor and General Assembly have the responsibility to immediately provide Virginia’s four HBCUs with significant and ongoing funding,” they wrote. “This commitment should include initial grants of $50 million to each HBCU for scholarships, recruitment, retention, academic programs and capital projects as provided to non-HBCUs.”

It’s not the first time there have been calls to provide more funding to the schools, which include Norfolk State University, Virginia State University, Hampton University and Virginia Union University. In 2019, Northam proposed an additional $293 million investment in Norfolk and Virginia State — two public HBCUs — to “level the playing field” with other universities.

As the Mercury reported, the schools had some of the lowest four- and five-year graduation rates in the state, coupled — in many cases — with declining enrollment.

Many of those challenges date back to the creation of HBCUs. Most emerged from modest beginnings due to the state’s refusal to integrate education or fund schools for Black students. Wilder said Norfolk State, now Virginia’s largest HBCU originally started in a YMCA as a branch of Virginia Union University. VUU also weathered intentional segregation efforts, including the construction of Richmond’s Interstate 95 and Interstate 64 corridor. The construction deliberately separated the university from the city’s historically Black Jackson Ward neighborhood, researchers found.

“So the question is, when are we going to acknowledge that not only was it wrong, but it was never improved upon to the extent that it should have been?” Wilder said.

He met with the state’s four HBCUs ahead of a planned special session this summer to allocate Virginia’s ARP funding — “one of the largest economic recovery efforts ever,” according to a joint statement from Northam and General Assembly leaders.

Higher education lost billions during the COVID-19 pandemic, but HBCUs were already more financially vulnerable. The schools have smaller endowments and a much greater percentage of low-income students than other universities, the Mercury has reported. And while many state colleges saw negligible drops in enrollment — or even increases — both Norfolk and Virginia State lost students during the pandemic, according to data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Dyke, though, said the request for funding was equally important as an economic opportunity. A recent report from the national think tank Education Reform Now found that Virginia accounts for a third of the 15 worst-ranked public colleges and universities in Pell Grant enrollment. The grants are given to students with “exceptional” financial needs and — unlike other federal aid — don’t have to be repaid.

The same report found that only three of Virginia’s public universities enroll a proportion of Black and Hispanic students that’s equal to their total makeup of the college-aged population. Two of those schools are HBCUs. That makes direct aid especially important, Dyke said, given the disproportionate role they play in educating underserved communities.

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The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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