Federal officials discovered that land-grant HBCUs in 16 states have been underfunded compared to their neighboring, predominantly white research universities by more than $12 billion since 1987. U.S. Senators are now working to create stronger federal oversight over state funding.
However, there are other sources for HBCUs to explore. A National Science Foundation (NSF) report found that the Department of Defense’s Federal allocation of colleges’ science and engineering programs topped over $2.5 billion in fiscal year 2020. Funding to Johns Hopkins University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Penn State University comprised more than half of the Defense’s allocation. Funding for HBCUs, however, made up less than $1 million.
At a glance, this may look like a blatant disparity, but hiding beneath the data is an opportunity for HBCUs. Congress has for decades urged the Defense Department to work with HBCUs, and new policy suggests federal officials intend to establish a goal-oriented action plan to incentivize partnerships. Secondly, the size of the Defense’s research and development budget is expected to reach $145 billion in 2024.
John Rosenthall, president and CEO of the Tougaloo College Research and Development Foundation (TCRDF), explains how the most prominent problem HBCUs currently face in winning more funding is their lack of relationships with federal decision-makers. Because legislators and other leaders lack a connection with HBCUs, they don’t have a personal understanding of the funding disparities.
“HBCUs have some capacity in research, but they lack the experience and infrastructure,” Rosenthall says. “I would be willing to wager with you that if you walked into the Pentagon, you would find Southern Cal and Penn State people meeting with officials to understand their challenges, their problems and help them sort out solutions.”
Enter the Tougaloo Foundation, which represents a collective of more than 30 HBCUs and established research giants such as the University of Southern California, Brown University and Purdue University. Its mission is to help underfunded schools navigate the often complex research and contracting processes necessary to win federal funding.
The University of South Florida joined the network in September. The USF Institute of Applied Engineering has secured more than $95 million in contract opportunities from the federal government. It is primed to partner with HBCUs to secure research funding and contracts with the federal government.
Because HBCUs often lack the infrastructure and expertise to conduct research necessary for the Defense Department, partnering with more robust schools allows their faculty and students to pursue more ambitious projects, which in turn helps them win bigger research contracts and increase their discretionary spending. This can lead to a cascade of improvements, such as more scholarship opportunities, higher faculty salaries and budgets that can support improved networking opportunities with the military, which all compounds the benefits again.
“So you may start with building up your sponsored programs office through a partnership opportunity with one of the larger institutions, and then you just grow it from there,” Rosenthall says. “Looking at the long term, you must play the long game. There are no overnight wonders in this process.”