WASHINGTON — As part of President Biden’s sprawling domestic policy agenda, he proposed tens of billions of dollars for historically Black colleges and universities as a long-overdue down payment on leveling the playing field between them and their wealthier, predominantly white-serving counterparts.
But as Mr. Biden’s $3.5 trillion vision to rebuild the nation’s physical and social infrastructure has met the realities of a divided Congress and a shrinking spending plan, funding for some of the nation’s most underresourced higher education institutions has fallen way short.
The latest iteration of the social spending bill put forth by House Democrats includes billions of dollars in tuition assistance for low-income students attending H.B.C.U.s and other minority-serving institutions. But instead of an additional $20 billion that Mr. Biden had hoped to funnel exclusively to the schools — part of a $45 billion proposal to upgrade research infrastructure across the country — the House bill proposes just $2 billion, to be awarded through a competitive grant program that pits roughly 100 H.B.C.U.s against hundreds of larger institutions that have far more resources.
The shortfall has created a chasm between Democratic congressional leaders and the H.B.C.U. community. The institutions recently issued a rare rebuke of Democratic leaders, saying that their decision to underdeliver on Mr. Biden’s vision will perpetuate centuries of inequities that have put them at a competitive disadvantage. The schools were counting on the funding to build or modernize research laboratories, repair dilapidated buildings, and upgrade computing capabilities and networks.
“We’ve done more with less forever, and promises made just have to be promises kept,” said Lodriguez V. Murray, the senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, which represents private Black colleges. “The president did his part, and now if Congress doesn’t act, it won’t just be heartbreaking, but it will continue to demoralize our community.”
The lackluster funding levels have also created intraparty rifts, threatening the razor-thin margin in Congress that Democrats are already fighting to preserve. Representative Alma Adams, Democrat of North Carolina, has threatened to vote against the House plan if H.B.C.U.s don’t get more funding. In order to muscle the bill past unanimous Republican opposition, Democrats are using a fast-track budget process known as reconciliation — meaning they must retain the support of every Democratic senator and all but three representatives.
In an interview, Ms. Adams, who also leads the bipartisan H.B.C.U. Caucus, said that her mother, a domestic worker, never graduated from high school, and that attending North Carolina A&T, an H.B.C.U., allowed her to eventually walk the halls of Congress. She also taught at another H.B.C.U., Bennett College, for 40 years, most of them in classrooms without air-conditioning.
“If we’re going to invest truly in our nation’s infrastructure, we have to invest in the places that lift up those who are most underserved, and that’s H.B.C.U.s,” Ms. Adams said. “It’s the same thing as when we’re talking about crumbling roads and buildings; we’ve got crumbling on these campuses as well.”
The roughly 100 schools, born out of slavery and segregation, account for 3 percent of all colleges and universities but produce roughly 25 percent of African American graduates in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The schools have also reportedly produced roughly 80 percent of Black judges, 70 percent of Black doctors, 50 percent of Black teachers and more than 40 percent of the Black members of Congress.
Democratic lawmakers say that the diminished H.B.C.U. funding levels merely reflect the political realities as fiscally conservative members of the party, whose votes they cannot do without, insist on major cuts across the board.
Mr. Biden privately conceded in meetings with lawmakers on Tuesday that a plan to provide two years of free community college would most likely be dropped, although funding was still expected to be directed to higher education, including H.B.C.U.s, one attendee said. How much was still unclear, and Democrats cautioned that the talks remained fluid.
Representative Robert C. Scott, Democrat of Virginia, whose committee proposed the $2 billion, noted that since the pandemic began, Congress has secured $6.5 billion for the institutions — more federal support than some of them had received in 10 years combined — which included forgiving debts for capital financing loans.
“We’re trying to do more,” he said. “We have not finished.”
This month, Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote to her Democratic colleagues in the House that in order to pass both the infrastructure and domestic policy bills in the coming weeks, “difficult decisions must be made very soon” and that “overwhelmingly, the guidance I am receiving from members is to do fewer things.”
But the gulf between Mr. Biden’s initial proposal and the House bill stung for H.B.C.U.s, which were asked to support the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that the Senate has passed. They were largely shut out of that bill, with the promise that they would be taken care of in the reconciliation package.
Thirty-seven H.B.C.U. presidents, all members of the United Negro College Fund, signed a letter to congressional leaders this month saying that the reconciliation package failed to take “important steps towards addressing the historic disparities in funding and investing for H.B.C.U.s.”
Historically, H.B.C.U.s have received less federal and state aid than other institutions — sometimes as a result of deliberate discrimination — and their endowments trail their peers’ by hundreds of millions of dollars. Such gaps have contributed to the schools’ racking up tens of millions of dollars on average in deferred maintenance. According to a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office, public H.B.C.U.s, on average, reported deferred maintenance backlogs of $67 million and private H.B.C.U.s reported $17 million.
Walter M. Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, credited Mr. Biden for “going big” but said he was shocked that Congress would make institutions compete against one another for a vastly smaller pool of funding.
Under the criteria for schools to be designated “minority-serving institutions” under federal law, small H.B.C.U.s would have to compete for funding against the likes of the University of California system.
“How does Dillard, a small liberal arts school, compete with a flagship, or a state system?” Dr. Kimbrough said. “It’s nonsensical.”
Congressional leaders are currently working to tweak the grant rules so that H.B.C.U.s would compete for funding only against other H.B.C.U.s. They are also working to remove language that could deprioritize H.B.C.U.s that already receive more than $10 million a year in federal research funding.
A lack of investment in minority scientists and researchers is already threatening the nation’s standing as a world leader in innovation and technology, said Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Research released this year by the institution found stark regional and racial disparities in federal research-and-development funding: Half of it flowed to just six states in 2019, and less than 1 percent went to H.B.C.U.s.
“We cut off our noses to spite our face, when we don’t invest in the assets that spur economic and social mobility,” Dr. Perry said, a senior fellow at Brookings, at a recent hearing of the House Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee.
Dr. Perry noted that endowments alone would not close the existing gaps. The combined endowment for every H.B.C.U. in the country through 2019 was just over $3.9 billion, he said in his testimony. New York University’s endowment was $4.3 billion that same year.
Representative Frederica Wilson, Democrat of Florida, a graduate of Fisk University — an H.B.C.U. — and chairwoman of the higher education subcommittee, expressed hope for future legislation; she recently said she would file legislation to help students affected by the legacy of slavery cover the cost of attending an H.B.C.U.
“H.B.C.U.s have been underfunded for nearly two centuries,” she said, “and far greater investments are needed to right the wrongs of the past.”
Leaders of institutions that have waited decades for the next promise, the next bill, say that time is of the essence.
The dormitory that Quinton T. Ross Jr., president of Alabama State University, lived in as a student is 58 years old — older than he is. It is one of the newest on his campus; other buildings are more than a century old.
Like many college presidents, Dr. Ross believes the school will continue to do what it has always done — draw, retain and serve students that could instead choose flashier options.
“If you don’t start at the same place, then you’re always going to be behind,” he said, “and when there’s such disparity over time, you usually can’t catch up. The Congress is on the verge of having an amazing opportunity to right a wrong.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.