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How Maryland’s historically Black universities will use $577 million from state to close wealth gap, strengthen communities

The presidents of Maryland’s four historically Black universities — Morgan State, Coppin State, Bowie State and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — are crafting plans for the $577 million in extra funding coming from the state in the next decade. The money, they say, will pay for scholarships, help fund high-demand programs in science, technology, engineering and math fields and free up financing for much-needed infrastructure repairs.

Maryland’s General Assembly voted last month to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the universities starting in 2022, settling a 15-year-old federal lawsuit waged by advocates of the historically Black institutions.

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Alumni and boosters of Morgan State first filed the suit against the state in 2006, arguing that years of underfunding had starved the institutions of advantages enjoyed by the state’s predominantly white universities.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, signed the legislation, sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, at Bowie State last month and lawyers finalized the agreement last week.

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The lawsuit argued that the state’s practice siphoned away students and effectively re-segregated the Black schools, leaving them with insufficient resources to attract and retain students and high-quality professors.

Starting next year, $57.7 million will be set aside annually for 10 years and divvied up by the universities based on enrollment figures.

All four university presidents say they plan to invest the funds into high-impact degree and certificate programs, many in STEM fields or health care, in order help close the wealth gap between Black graduates and other races.

At Morgan State, president David Wilson said leaders have paid close attention to the kinds of degrees that are in high demand in Maryland’s private sector.

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“This will be an institution where people will say ‘this is the college that will enable me to not just get a job, but close the wealth gap, always be in high demand and have skills that are not dated,” Wilson said.

As the largest of the four universities with about 7,600 students, Morgan State plans to add 25 to 30 new degrees, some of which will be multi-disciplinary and potentially exclusive to the university, Wilson said.

By 2030, Wilson also hopes to have built out Morgan State‘s research capabilities to rival University of Maryland, College Park and Johns Hopkins University. Wilson said the benefits of such a plan will ripple out from Morgan’s campus to improve the quality of life in Baltimore and other communities struggling with health disparities, poverty and other challenges.

“These funds are going to help us get there,” Wilson said. “We want to be what the University of Wisconsin is to Milwaukee, what Wayne State is to Detroit, Georgia State to Atlanta,” he said.

Baltimore’s other historically Black school, Coppin State University, will use state funds to create more wrap-around services and programs for students. More than 80% of Coppin students qualify for Pell Grants, a federal program for low-income students, according to university president Anthony Jenkins.

Students who come from low-income households typically graduate at lower rates, Jenkins said.

“It takes more money, more resources to get our students over the finish line,” he said. “My students work to pay for college, to take care of their families. If it came down between working or education, they don’t have the option [to choose education].”

Jenkins said the funds will help create scholarships for students in the short term — but that investment could create an astounding economic impact on the greater Baltimore area in the long term.

“We take students regardless of where they are and we create scholars and impact generational change,” Jenkins said.

At Bowie State, President Aminta Breaux also plans to create scholarships to help students remain in school and graduate on time. School administrators hope to ramp up not just degrees, but certificates that will help graduates keep their skills up to date, she said.

“We’re small in numbers, but mighty to our communities and the economy,” Breaux said of the impact.

She added that Bowie State also will put the state funding toward building up its graduate school and diversifying the campus.

While the legislation limits what the state funds can be used on, the additional dollars are expected to free up other pools of money to make desperately needed infrastructure improvements on campus, Breaux said.

Infrastructure has long been a looming concern at Bowie State University and University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. Many historically Black colleges and universities across the U.S. struggle with infrastructure including new construction, deferred maintenance, technology and real estate, according to a 2014 report from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

All four Maryland HBCUs are more than 100 years old and were founded at a time of legal segregation when most universities did not accept Black students.

University of Maryland, Eastern Shore President Heidi Anderson pointed to one example of recent infrastructure struggles at the Somerset County campus. Shortly after she stepped into her role as president three years ago, a storm severely damaged the roof of the university’s library. The water damage destroyed expensive and important archives and artwork, and caused the library to close for six months, she said.

“You wouldn’t find something like that at many universities,” Anderson said. “The library is the heart and blood of the university for students. Imagine not having one functioning here.”

In the meantime, Anderson hopes to use the state funding to create more health care programs that will benefit adjacent rural communities where health disparities are “out of control,” she said.

The funds also will help the school of agriculture, where students often partner with and learn from local farmers and marine life experts.

All four university presidents agreed the funds are a “good start” but constitute a fraction of what they ultimately need to build a stronger higher education experience for their students.

Anderson worries about what will happen in 10 years when the law expires. She believes it will require the four university presidents to band together again to find a solution with lawmakers, she said.

“We owe a lot of thanks to a lot of people who fought this battle for 15 years,” Anderson said. “It’s been a team effort of people passing the baton. Now they’ve passed it to me and my team to make sure it lasts.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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