Higher-Ed Funding in Black and White?

The subtitle gets it all wrong: In The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal and How to Set Them Right, Adam Harris fails to recognize that America’s colleges have always been unequal and always will be. The very nature of college education identifies the reason: differential talents in differential institutions will never produce uniform performance. To be fair, Harris really only means that America’s colleges have always been unequally funded. But there is a lesson to be learned from the casual use of the language of equality and inequality, which suggests a much-needed corrective. Each time someone says or writes that two or more things are unequal, the only intelligent response is to inquire: “unequal as to what?”

Once one performs that ritual sacrifice to the gods of the copy editors, one may freely inquire whether it is important, in the case of this work, that colleges are unequally funded. Speeding beyond different missions, curricula, constituencies, and the myriad valid reasons for different funding, we land upon the one thing Harris is concerned about: differential funding between two categories of college—namely, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on the one hand, and all other public and private institutions on the other hand.

Harris relates this story, however, in an unusual manner. He places at the center of the analysis not an HBCU but the fabled, antebellum Berea College in Kentucky, established in evangelical zeal to educate black and white students together. As a result, the reader actually gets two narratives rather than one. In the process, Harris establishes an intersection between the history of Berea College and the policy gymnastics that hobbled black institutions (and students) of higher education for the entire postbellum period up to the culminating rejection of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Education in 1954-55. But this narrative does not mention the culmination in Brown, focusing instead on the long series of incremental challenges to “separate but equal” that arose in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, and elsewhere. The point of relating the story in this manner is to illustrate just how Berea was initially put out of business as a casualty of legislative efforts in Kentucky to build legal bulwarks to thwart integrated public education that had a spill-over effect on the private education at Berea.

The historical practice in public higher education has consistently been to fund education at public HBCUs at a lower rate than non-HBCUs. That dynamic continued after legal mandates to integrate. Moreover, inasmuch as even private institutions have been enfolded in webs of public funding and regulation, they may rightfully be included in this analysis. The result—surprise—is a pattern and practice of unequal funding.

But Harris asks how to “set them right” without giving enough attention to the reasons why this has occurred. The book is, despite its general title, primarily an analysis of the history of Berea College. That is an apt example, insofar as it was founded in the antebellum era specifically for the purpose of bridging the educational opportunities of black and non-black matriculants in a common setting. That was a brave venture in those pre-integration days, properly lauded then and a source of inspiration now.

Harris uses the twisted trail of reactions to the Berea experiment, however, as an avatar for the experience of higher education in general. For Berea, early success in creating an example became by that very fact a target, and subsequently a victim, of repression. The age of complete separation emerged in the postbellum era, producing a Kentucky statute that barred the very mission of Berea and, therefore, effectively drove it out of existence.

Parallel to the experience of Berea, as Harris well recounts, the separate HBCUs emerged, as if to make permanent the ethos of separation. What followed then was the long but determined process of challenging “separate but equal.” Throughout that struggle, a paradox was always present though not always acknowledged: what if it were possible to make apartness fully equal? Would it therefore satisfy ethical and legal propriety?

To “set things right” in the manner Harris provides could well result in depriving the majority of black students (those at non-HBCUs) of resources in favor of black and non-black students at HBCUs.

By the time Brown v. Board Education declared segregation “inherently unequal” it was too late to deal with that paradoxical question thoughtfully. But the reason it was too late to deal with it may lie rather in what Harris does not say than what he does say. For he carefully demonstrates how various jurisdictions labored demonically to evade the logical implications of the “separate but equal” stance they had embraced, pretending to provide equal educational opportunities, while always cheating the system to favor the side of the preferred interest. But in that very reality we behold the answer to the paradox: oddly (though not, perhaps, to an economist), the segregationists cared more about education than they cared about the apartness! As a result, they neither went all out to provide the best for all groups, nor, more importantly, deprived the favored group of resources in an effort to create a phantom equality with the disfavored group. The consequence: they could not live up to their professions (even when it is not true that separate education is inherently unequal).

Consider: nowhere is apartness in education more dramatically practiced than country to country, which necessarily involves different racial and ethnic groupings. Can any reasonably intelligent human being possibly maintain that education among those respective circumstances must be inherently unequal? Of course not. The result, therefore, is that in the United States we have attempted to resolve an important ethical and legal dilemma on the basis of a fiction.

What does this have to do with HBCUs? The argument in favor of HBCUs resists the fiction and instead reduces the factor of equality or inequality in education to the sole matter of funding. Then, to set things right, the argument pumps for equal funding based simply on the distinction between the ethnic or racial groups served by the institutions. And to the extent that the groups served may well converge (in the era of integration), the argument becomes even less persuasive. However, Harris’s argument does serve to highlight the critique of “separate is inherently unequal” precisely because the demand for equal funding contradicts that assumption.

While it is true that HBCUs disproportionately graduate black professionals and scientists when compared with non-HBCUs in general, that performance is in many ways indistinct from the performance of residential liberal arts institutions in general. And it remains the case that it has long since been true that more black students matriculate at non-HBCUs than at HBCUs. To “set things right” in the manner Harris provides, therefore, could well result in depriving the majority of black students (those at non-HBCUs) of resources in favor of black and non-black students at HBCUs. Since HBCUs are typically smaller and cannot gain the advantage of economies of scale, that result would be unavoidable even if one adhered to a strict rule of proportionality in funding.

Harris, accordingly, has not shown how to “set things right,” even though it must be said that he has written clearly and persuasively about the historical development of the issue. When he returns to the story of Berea College, after separate but equal had been dismantled, he presents a picture of what a thriving institution with a mission of serving all can look like, when paying careful attention to assure that it actually enrolls all. The lesson to be learned from the Berea experience is not that of a careful proportioning of black and non-black matriculants (which certainly was a part of their history), but that of serving all in an environment in which collaboration and association are the norm.