Biden Infrastructure Plan Must Address the HBCU Deferred Maintenance Crisis

If a college campus is one of the best in class at producing African American talent in a wide range of industries, and the nation needs this talent to remain competitive in a shrinking global pool of innovation and intellectual capital, will the nation get a shot at refining that talent if the campus can’t attract it to begin with?

This question about historically Black institutions has evaded political fidelity and the public funding that accompanies it for generations. The riddle has made the burden of racial stereotyping against these schools even more backbreaking with every year and chapter of capital project backlog.

Deferred maintenance — campus construction and renovation projects that, because of a lack of funding or available resources get pushed to the wish list section in plans or next year’s annual budget request in the case of public institutions. EAB called it a crisis in a recent report, and Lehigh Valley Business referred to it as the ‘perfect storm;’ a clash between the necessity for buildings to be safe for human use and the inaccessibility of funds to even start facility projects.

The tragic negative perception about educational opportunities at HBCUs is driven by deferred maintenance more than any other element of the academic enterprise on these campuses. Southern University’s backlog was so neglected that a Louisiana state auditor said in 2016 that $111 million in deferred maintenance created “potentially hazardous conditions” on campus.

In 2017, deferred maintenance issues with Grambling State University’s library forced school officials to take the building off-line because of environmental concerns.

In 2018, Howard University was forced to halt classes due to a failure of its heating and cooling systems during a harsh winter storm. Later that year, a 2018 report from the federal Government Accountability Office recommended that more HBCUs take advantage of the U.S. Department of Education’s HBCU Capital Financing Loan program which would provide funds for campus modernization efforts.

They based their recommendations on survey responses from dozens of HBCUs, with nearly 60% of campuses saying that academic buildings were their priority for construction and renovation.

From the report:

Half of HBCUs that responded to our survey question on their current deferred maintenance backlog (24 of 48)—repairs that were not performed when they should have been—reported a backlog of $19 million. The Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board defines deferred maintenance as maintenance that was not performed when it should have been or was scheduled to be and which was put off or delayed for a future period. In addition, 30 HBCUs reported in our survey that their deferred maintenance backlog had increased in the last 3 years (2015 through 2017), and 7 HBCUs reported their backlog decreased.
Public HBCUs, on average, reported deferred maintenance backlogs of $67 million and private HBCUs of $17 million. To better understand deferred maintenance, colleges hire consultants to conduct facilities condition assessments. For example, consultants conducted a facility condition assessment to understand a public HBCU’s deferred maintenance backlog, among other things, and found the backlog was $9.7 million for various repair or replacement projects ranging from repairing HVAC systems to needing a new roof for an administrative building. A higher education association reported deferred maintenance can erode safe physical conditions, financial health, and the morale of an institution.
Officials from most HBCUs we interviewed (11 of 15) said they attempt to prioritize their deferred maintenance but that financial emergencies or funding constraints prevent them from doing so. For example, officials at an HBCU we visited said that the main pipes that feed into three residence halls and their student center burst, and this unplanned capital project cost the college nearly $1 million. This HBCU had to borrow funding from its operating budget, which took away from funds that could have been used to address planned deferred maintenance projects.

In February, South Carolina State University demolished two dormitories that were taken off-line due to environmental concerns, with renovation costs so high that school leaders said new construction would be more cost-efficient than building rehab.

Earlier this month, the Department discharged billions owed by the HBCUs under that program, which frees campuses from paying back loans on outdated and obsolete facilities but does not address today’s modernization question.

The Biden Administration has called for about $2 trillion in infrastructure improvements nationwide, with an emphasis on transportation, climate resilience and weatherization, Internet access, and more. HBCUs are targeted for about $35 billion in research support for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions within the plan.

But community colleges are promised about $12 billion for specific facility improvement and modernization projects. Here’s the rationale:

Investing in community college facilities and technology helps protect the health and safety of students and faculty, address education deserts (particularly for rural communities), grow local economies, improve energy efficiency and resilience, and narrow funding inequities in the short-term, as we rebuild our higher education finance system for the long-run. President Biden is calling on Congress to invest $12 billion to address these needs. States will be responsible for using the dollars to address both existing physical and technological infrastructure needs at community colleges and identifying strategies to address access to community college in education deserts.

These are just a handful of the most extreme casualties of HBCU deferred maintenance, but every Black college campus has horror stories just like these. And while it is good policy to put HBCU at the forefront of issues like climate change and tech equity, the campuses will not be able to recruit undergraduate or graduate students without facilities that are safe, attractive, and technologically well-appointed.

It is hustling backward to pay lip service to HBCU research knowing that high-research predominantly white institutions nationwide are at the height of their pursuit of minority students to recoup what was lost during the coronavirus pandemic, which with more resources for scholarships and more attractive campuses will be to the detriment of HBCUs.

Black colleges are not looking for policy that sounds good, but actually is good and serves long-term interests. Research infrastructure enhancements, in theory, should get you better students, better faculty, and more grant-making opportunities within federal agencies.

But all of it is for naught if you can’t convince these researchers to visualize their work or themselves in buildings that do not look the part. And if the Biden Administration doesn’t take a closer look at how it defines such plans, a lot more people will be paying a lot more attention when Umar Johnson shakes the table on policy conversation.