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'The State Must Provide' Is A Lesson On Inequality In Higher Ed, Past And Present

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. America's colleges have always been unequal, writes my guest, Adam Harris. His new book, "The State Must Provide," explains how slavery, segregation and continuing racism prevented or stymied Black education. He examines some of the turning points when higher education could have been made equal and centuries of discrimination could have been remedied. He also writes about the important role historically Black colleges and universities have played and the reasons why they have remained underfunded.

Harris went to an HBCU, Alabama A&M University. He's now a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about education and national politics. And he's a fellow at the think tank New America. He previously was a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Adam Harris, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ADAM HARRIS: Thanks so much for having me.

GROSS: I think it's interesting - and I'd like to hear your impressions of this - I think it's interesting that the publication of your book coincides with a movement on the right to ban the teaching of what they describe as critical race theory. They don't want schools to teach about the history of racism and how racism is baked into American law and other systems and institutions. Your book is about how racism has been baked into higher education. Do you think your book is an example of what the anti-critical race theory movement wouldn't want taught?

HARRIS: You know, I've been thinking about that very question a lot lately. And there are ways that historically this current movement kind of factors into the historical push to sort of obfuscate about the ways that racism continues to affect day-to-day life in America, the institutions in America. And so, you know, it is interesting to publish a book like this that is examining not only the sort of historical discrimination, not only the ways that the foundations of the higher education system were kind of created in an inherently unequal way, but the ways that that has been defended and sustained over more than a century. It's interesting to publish this sort of book into an environment that actively is trying to quell or sort of diminish that sort of work.

GROSS: You experienced racial disparity going to an HBCU, Alabama A&M, in Normal, Ala. You liked the college. But one day you went to the library at the University of Alabama-Huntsville (ph) because it had longer hours and a better collection. What did you notice comparing the two campuses?

HARRIS: Alabama A&M has always been a family institution for me. It's where my mom went to school. My sister was on campus at the same time as I was. My uncle was a drum major there. And so I had that connection to the institution for as long as I can remember. But then, as you mentioned, I went to the University of Alabama-Huntsville. It's a predominantly white college. It's about ten minutes away from Alabama A&M. And I had always wondered why there were multiple public colleges in particular in Huntsville. You know, it's not the largest city. But as I got over to UAH and, you know, I noticed that they had had, like, finely manicured lawns and they had new buildings, new books in the library - and I just started noticing these fundamental differences between that campus and my campus.

And as I, you know, started digging a little bit, I realized that, you know, UAH was not founded that long ago. It was founded, you know, around 1950, in part because segregation was the law in Alabama. And even though there was a public college, you know, in the Huntsville area that, you know, was founded in 1875 - so it had been around for 75 years at that point - white students couldn't go there because segregation was the law. And since then, UAH has been sustained and funded in ways that my own institution had not.

GROSS: So the university you went to, an HBCU, was publicly funded, as was the University of Alabama-Huntsville. So what accounts for the discrepancy in the amount of money each of those schools got?

HARRIS: So it's a mix of factors. How states build out their funding models - several states will have things like a performance-based funding model, where institutions that have better graduation rates, institutions that have more students will receive more money. And those with lower graduation rates or fewer students will receive less money, even if they are serving two, you know, vastly different student populations. And then it becomes more difficult to serve those student populations, as you're receiving less money because of kind of a historic linkage. And so the thing that I always point people to around historically Black colleges, in my own institution in particular, is they're still being judged on a history that was at its base, unequal, right?

There are two public land grants in Alabama. One of them is Auburn University - (laughter) major football school - the one kind of everyone knows. And then you have Alabama A&M University, which is the historically Black land grant college. Those two schools serve completely different student populations. Auburn University has fewer Black students right now in total number of Black students than it did in 2002.

In the 1980s, when Bo Jackson was named the Heisman Trophy winner, a federal judge on the same day declared Auburn the most segregated institution in the state. And around then they had around two or 3% percent Black students on campus. Now they have about 5% Black students (laughter) on campus. Meanwhile, Alabama A&M is overwhelmingly Black. And so just looking at those two different student populations, looking at who they're serving and looking at which institutions receive more money and how those resources are doled out begins to paint a picture of how the higher education system is sort of keeping Black students away from those resources that are kind of desperately needed to be successful in college.

GROSS: So what you're describing, in some instances, is a self-perpetuating cycle where Black students who were historically denied an equal education are now often going to underfunded universities because those Black students who were historically deprived of an equal education aren't performing as well as the white students who were not deprived (laughter) of that...

HARRIS: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: ...Good education.

HARRIS: Yes.

GROSS: So what are some of the racial disparities that you see now in higher education? And then we could talk about some of the things historically that you think have led to those disparities.

HARRIS: So there are a couple of things, right? If you - one, if you're looking at enrollment numbers at some of the most selective institutions in the country - the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, University of Texas and other other similar institutions, kind of these large public flagship institutions - Black students make up a very small number of those students. Even in a place like Alabama where, you know, roughly 30% of high school graduates are Black, you still see paltry enrollments of Black students at, you know, the flagship institutions, whether that's the University of Alabama or whether that's Auburn University.

In a state like North Carolina, even today, roughly 70-some-odd percent of Black students in the state attend either one of the five HBCUs or the community colleges in the state. And these are some of the least funded institutions in the state. And so at a very root level, that sort of stratification of few Black students at the institutions that have the most money and more Black students at the institutions that have the fewest dollars, whether that's federal dollars, state dollars or private money, at a base level, that is one of the inequities that is borne out of the sort of historical discrimination in higher ed.

GROSS: Looking at some of the history behind racial inequity in higher education - I mean, there used to be laws in some southern states, including Alabama, where you're from, where it was illegal to teach Black people to read. And this was during slave times.

HARRIS: Yes. So there were a string of laws, you know, beginning with South Carolina in 1740, that - states would basically pass laws that would ban and bar Black people from learning to read. In some states, that was punishable by a fine of, you know, something like $500 for teaching an enslaved person to read or write. The laws got, of course, more aggressive after Nat Turner's rebellion in which states started even barring Black people from learning to read the Bible because they were afraid of what Black people gaining knowledge would do. Or if they were to learn how to read, they might be able to organize and upend the slave system, right? So there were a lot of states that passed these laws, basically anti-literacy laws, in order to sort of stymie Black education.

GROSS: And how did that carry over to post-slave times?

HARRIS: So initially, after slavery, after the Civil War, you enter into this period of Reconstruction, where you have Northern white philanthropists who are coming down and helping to start colleges and primary schools for Black students. You have people who are coming from teaching at different camps during the Civil War - so Camp Nelson and other, you know, Northern army camps that would go and create institutions. And you even had some public funds going to institutions.

So Alcorn State, for instance, in Mississippi, was founded in 1871 and was given a guaranteed appropriation of $50,000 a year for at least a decade. But then, subtly kind of over a period of time, you started to see that kind of commitment to any sort of Black education decline. And in Mississippi - I use it because it's one of the starkest examples. So as the Reconstruction fervor begins to wane and white Mississippians regain power in the state legislature, that $50,000 appropriation becomes a $15,000 appropriation in 1875. And then one year later in 1876, that becomes a $5,500 appropriation.

Meanwhile, a place like the University of Mississippi, their faculty are actively saying and encouraging parents to say, OK, this is a institution for white people. If we were to enroll a Black student, we would resign. And so at the same time as Black colleges are being kind of shorted money, white colleges are actively saying, these institutions are not for you.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Harris. He's author of the new book "The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal - And How To Set Them Right." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERENT SONG, "STAY THE NIGHT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Adam Harris, author of the new book "The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal - And How To Set Them Right." He writes about education and national politics for The Atlantic, where he's a staff writer.

The first integrated coed college in the South was Berea College in Kentucky. It was founded by John Fee, a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist, in 1855. And the land for this college was provided by someone named Cassius Clay - not the Cassius Clay, of course. And he was the son of a slave owner, but Cassius Clay was an abolitionist. So tell us the story of how John Fee was attacked and driven out of town after founding Berea College.

HARRIS: Yeah. So John Fee had this idea. He sort of became an abolitionist after attending a Northern seminary and had this idea to start a college that was basically biblical - right? - this idea that came out of Acts, God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth. And so he goes to find his first location. He decides with a friend of his who joined him on this journey that this is where we're going to plant our college. And it's ultimately burned to the ground within days. They find another location. They're run out of town.

And at the same time in the, you know, late 1850s in Kentucky - right? - this sort of pro-slavery fervor was growing. And planted as it was sort of in the middle of the state, Berea in Madison County was a place where the pro-slavery wing did not and could not abide by John Fee sticking around and staying in town. And so ultimately, before the Civil War, he is run out of town before he's able to really establish his college and get it off the ground. Luckily for Berea, he comes back after the Civil War and builds the college that we can kind of sort of still recognize today.

GROSS: And the college was integrated until 1904, until a law was passed prohibiting white students from attending school with Black students. That was the Day Law, named after the Kentucky legislator Carl Day. Tell us a little bit about this law and its impact.

HARRIS: Yeah. So effectively, as the lore goes in Kentucky, you know, Carl Day was passing through town and saw a Black woman and a white woman hugging on a train platform and poked around to figure out what was going on. And as he learned, there was the integrated coeducational college in Berea, Ky. But this bill was actually - you know, there was only one integrated institution in Kentucky. So it was clearly aimed at Berea, but it was a part of a larger effort across the South. Right?

I think people understand segregation laws in the South, as you know, taking effect in the 1800s, in the mid-1800s. But really, Kentucky passed the Day Law in 1904. And effectively, this law, as several folks kind of painted it to me, they said this sort of pernicious law said that Berea could not operate an integrated college. If they did so, there would be a significant fine for teachers who were teaching integrated classrooms. And then in addition to that, Berea couldn't operate an auxiliary campus within 25 miles of its main campus so really kind of cutting off any possibility of Berea creating an institution, an auxiliary institution that was nearby that could sort of serve the same purposes. And so it really was, in a lot of ways, a very pernicious law that, you know, in the aftermath of Plessy v. Ferguson had sort of - these sort of laws had proliferated around the South.

GROSS: And Plessy was the 1896 Supreme Court decision that said it's within a state's rights to prohibit integration. It said it was OK to have institutions that were separate - racially separate but equal. And as we all know, those institutions typically were not equal. So when you look at the history of higher education and racism in higher education, what's the importance of Berea?

HARRIS: So the importance of Berea is that even before the Civil War, you had people who were actively thinking about interracial education, who were thinking about equity and equality in education. And they carried that initial mission, the idea that God have made of one blood all the peoples of the Earth, on through the early 1900s. And it was only pulled apart by the state. And I think that one of the things that I often think about is this general idea that not only was our unequal higher education system in the public sphere created and maintained and defended and sustained by the state and federal actors, but at even a more granular level, even private institutions were on the receiving end of state policy that effectively, literally broke apart an integrated institution.

GROSS: Several HBCUs are land-grant colleges. First, I want you to explain what a land-grant college is. A lot of people to know the expression but don't know what it actually means.

HARRIS: So land-grant colleges are the result of the 1862 and 1890 Morrill Acts, which basically gave states land or land scripts that they are able to sell - so this is land that was expropriated from Native Americans through lopsided treaties and otherwise. They give these states this land that they can sell in order to fund a college.

And by and large, most of those colleges were attended almost exclusively by white people until 1890. Many of these institutions - West Virginia University, Penn State University - are now flagship institutions in their state. Cornell University, for example, received land-grant funding. Others of those institutions received generous endowments, and the land grant helped build them up. And so at their root, land-grant institutions are some of the original institutions created to increase access to higher education for more people.

GROSS: So there were two stages of the Morrill Act, one in 1862 and one in 1890. I think it wasn't until 1890 that some of these funds were allotted to what became HBCUs.

HARRIS: Yes. So the original Morrill Act grew out of this movement to train people, like, common people - to open colleges to more people. There were places to teach people how to be lawyers and doctors, but there weren't places to teach common workers - farmers, industrial workers - the arts and sciences as well as their craft.

And so you had Congress pass a bill to create these land-grant institutions. But the problem was most of these institutions were not open to Black students. Iowa State University, for example, in Iowa, which was one of the first states to accept the land grant from the federal government, didn't enroll its first Black student until 1890, when that second act passed that said that if you're going to accept these funds, you can't discriminate against students based on their race. And that first Black student ultimately ends up being George Washington Carver.

But there are several states where, until 1890, they weren't enrolling Black students. And then even after 1890, several states, instead of enrolling Black students, created or decided to use some of those funds to fund their historically Black colleges.

GROSS: Several of the HBCUs were founded as colleges through the Morrill Act, specializing in agriculture and the mechanical arts. Other HBCUs were not founded through the Morrill Act and were founded independently. Do you see a difference between how the state-funded ones and the others developed over the years?

HARRIS: So there are some differences and some similarities. I think that the throughline is the disparity in funding. And generally, there is some difference in that land grants are supposed to receive matching funds from the state and the federal government and all of these kind of intricate, wonky things that just have not come to pass. Tennessee, by way of example, very recently just issued a report that said that they had shorted their Black college, Tennessee State University, by between 200 million and $500 million in matching land-grant funds over the last 50 years.

And so there are those sorts of dearths and discrepancies in funding that are specific to the land grants. But I think overall, in terms of the amount of philanthropy that the institutions get in terms of the grants that they've applied for, I think that the throughline is that there is a general disparity in the funding for those institutions.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Harris, author of the new book "The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal - And How to Set Them Right." We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BISHOP'S "FALLING UP")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Adam Harris, author of the new book "The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal And How To Set Them Right." He's a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about education and national politics. He formerly wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

What do you see as the importance of HBCUs in higher education in America?

HARRIS: People often talk about the historical importance of the institutions, but I think that kind of undersells the kind of current role that they play in creating and sustaining the Black middle class. So even though HBCUs make up about 3% of the four-year nonprofit institutions in the country, they educate something like 25% of Black STEM graduates and, you know, produce 50% of Black lawyers and doctors and 80% of Black judges. So there's still a very current and real need for HBCUs. But I think that extends even beyond, you know, people's success after college because oftentimes HBCUs are doing the work of enrolling students that may not otherwise get a chance from other institutions. So HBCUs are often - they have an outsized share of Pell-eligible students - so students who are eligible for the federal Pell Grant for low-income students. And that is an important role that they are serving.

And I think that it also points to the fact that oftentimes they will need more money and greater resources in order to educate those students and prepare them as best as possible for success in the future. It's one thing to take, you know, the top 5% of students or the - you know, the top 3% of students from high schools across the country; it's another to provide an opportunity for students who may not have otherwise had that opportunity to go to college and to be successful.

GROSS: You write about an interesting case that started in 1948, when a student named Ada Lois Sipuel sued to be admitted to the University of Oklahoma Law School. And the Supreme Court ruled that Oklahoma was required to provide her a legal education. Was this the state Supreme Court or the federal Supreme Court?

HARRIS: This is the federal Supreme Court. They ruled kind of in accordance with a previous case in 1938, the Lloyd Gaines case, that the state was at the very least required to provide a separate education - or a separate educational facility for her to be able to attend law school. And, you know, as one of the examples of the sort of hoops that states jump through to keep their - keep and maintain their segregated systems, they literally rushed a law school into existence in five days. As opposed to, you know, creating a separate building, they established it in the Capitol building. And they hired three part-time faculty members. It barely had a sort of piecemeal curriculum.

And this is supposed to be compared to an institution that had been around for, you know, more than 50 years at that point. And so through this case, it sort of points to all of the legal hurdles and the lengths that states actively went to to prevent Black students from enrolling in their best-funded institutions.

GROSS: Was this so-called law school - was she the only student in it? Was it created for her, just to keep her out of the university?

HARRIS: Yes, it was created for her to, effectively, keep her out of the University of Oklahoma's Law School. And on the day that the law school opened, no students ultimately enrolled. And they went back to court to effectively argue that, well, you've created this separate institution, but it's clearly unequal. And I should mention that there are several cases on the way to - you know, on the way to Brown v. Board, including the Gaines case that said that you at least need to have a separate school for Black students. Then you have the Sipuel case that effectively says, OK, you have a separate school, but now you need to work on the equal part of separate but equal. And this was a strategy that the NAACP was employing in order to really poke holes in the lie that is separate but equal.

GROSS: Eventually, the University of Oklahoma did have to admit Black students, but it created barriers within classrooms to make sure there was no mingling. Describe what they did at the university.

HARRIS: Yeah, so ultimately, Ada Lois is not the first student to enroll at the University of Oklahoma. That distinction goes to - the first Black student, I should say. That distinction goes to George McLaurin, who was - you know, his case kind of ran concurrently with hers. He was a little bit older, had been a professor at Langston University and had gotten his masters at the University of Kansas. But he - you know, after he is - you know, the Supreme Court says, OK, you need to enroll him in your classes, he is literally separated out into an anteroom - so basically, a room that's adjacent to the classroom that used to be a library. And when Thurgood Marshall comes in to survey the classes, he's like, you know, they literally have this man in the hallway. And then when it was decided that, OK, he needs to be in class.

As other Black students started to enroll in graduate education there, you know, one or two at a time, they're literally - the state literally puts bars in the classroom, actual metal bars, that separate Black and white students. So effectively, they're trying to create a situation that is segregated as conditions allow. So, OK, we can't have outright segregation at different institutions? Well, we're going to segregate our classrooms.

GROSS: Let's jump ahead in time to 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which included Title VI. Describe what Title VI did in terms of integration in higher education.

HARRIS: Yeah, so Title VI is the law that says that federal funds will not go to institutions that discriminate against people based on their race, sex or otherwise. And practically, for higher education institutions, you know, during the civil rights movement, they - in some cases, they were looking for ways to increase their Black population. So, you know, just before Title VI passed, John F. Kennedy had introduced the idea of affirmative action into the sort of federal lexicon, into the policy lexicon, and so institutions themselves began to employ strategies to increase their enrollments of Black students to basically prevent from running afoul of this new law because - you got to think about it - most institutions are the recipients of some sorts of federal funds, whether that's grants for research or otherwise. And so that that federal money is actually very important for institutions.

And so to avoid, you know, looking like they're discriminating against Black students, they sought to sort of increase their enrollments of Black students in some instances. And it was never, you know, OK, we're going to jump it to 20%, right? It's, you know, OK, we have 2% here; we have 3% here, in order to keep from running afoul of the law.

GROSS: So affirmative action was challenged by Allan Bakke who applied to the University of California, Davis School of Medicine in 1972 in an early admissions program, applied again in '73 and was turned down. And he basically sued the university, saying that he was turned down because he was white and because they had to fill a quota of Black students, and that's why he didn't get it, and that was racial discrimination. So talk a little bit about that suit and the Supreme Court decision it led to.

HARRIS: Yeah. So ultimately, he ends up challenging the school's special admissions program, arguing that it's a quota and that it was keeping him out of the institution, discriminating against him. And the case makes its way to the Supreme Court. It's one of the most watched civil rights cases of, you know, the last century. And the justices are split. And it's actually such a split that you end up having four people who are effectively arguing that, no, this should be illegal outright; using race in admissions should not be permissible. You have four people who are arguing that, yes, the university should be able to use race in admissions, and even a quota system may be acceptable.

And then you have Justice Powell who kind of falls in the middle and says, OK, you can use race in admissions but only in concert with a host of other factors and never as sort of the deciding factor in admissions, in part because diversity is the compelling interest here rather than addressing a legacy of discrimination in higher education, that affirmative action was only as good as it benefited the entire student population rather than Black students or Hispanic students in particular.

And so what that effectively means in a grand scale is that affirmative action as a remedy for a legacy of discrimination is effectively blunted in 1978, 17 years after it enters the federal lexicon. And so what we've had since then is this sort of weak form of affirmative action that's not a remedy for discrimination even though people think it is. And you know, the thing that kind of underlines this point is that, you know, some of the most selective colleges and universities in the country, the enrollment of Black students kind of hovers around 5%.

GROSS: Do you think the Bakke decision could have been a turning point in remedying discrimination if it had gone the other way, if the case was decided, like, it's OK for colleges and universities to use a quota system to remedy the discrimination of the past?

HARRIS: You know, I do. And there was - in part because, you know, if you think about some of the dissenting opinions or some of the opinions of the other judges - so Justice Thurgood Marshall, for example, he talks about this case hinges on whether you view this as a college keeping someone out or as the college helping people to get in. And he was kind of pointing to this legacy of discrimination in higher education that said that, you know, for a long time, Black people were shut out of higher education. And this system that the University of California, Davis is implementing is an effort to remedy that.

GROSS: So what is legal now for universities to do in admissions in order to try to expand the number of African Americans and people of color who are admitted?

HARRIS: Yeah. So institutions are allowed to use race in admissions in concert with a host of other factors including, you know, SATs, GPAs, extracurricular activities, in order to make admissions decisions in what is called a holistic admissions process. But race cannot be the deciding factor in an admissions decision. That said, there are - admissions - college admissions, in a lot of ways, have historically been a black box. And that is one of the things that leads to those kind of holistic admissions processes to be challenged in court.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Harris, author of the new book "The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal - And How To Set Them Right." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Adam Harris, author of the new book "The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal - And How To Set Them Right." He's a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about education and national politics.

Several universities are now examining the legacy of racism in their institutions. What are some of the ways that universities are trying to remedy this?

HARRIS: Yeah. So over the last several decades - right? - we've seen a shift where institutions have started to study their links to slavery, segregation and systemic discrimination. You saw it first - one of the first places you saw it was at Brown University when Ruth Simmons was the president, and she launched an investigation into Brown's links to slavery. You've seen it at Georgetown. There's actually an entire consortium now of universities studying slavery - University of Virginia and others - where they're really trying to understand how they are connected to this legacy.

I think the next step in that is to move towards, OK, how do we fix that? How do we address it beyond, you know, renaming buildings or, you know, maybe establishing a $2 million scholarship fund or whatever it may be? And so, you know, they had this conference down in Mississippi a couple of years ago. And you know, one of the things that was sort of idly tossed out was this idea that, you know, maybe, you know, these predominantly white institutions that profited from slavery and segregation during segregation and were locking Black students out when, you know, HBCUs were struggling for resources, maybe they owe something to those institutions as well, the institutions that were serving Black students.

And so I think that right now you're seeing places like Georgetown say, OK, we're going to establish something to provide money for descendants of slavery. But in my estimation, that is not yet going far enough to remedy the broad, kind of structural discrimination in the system even when, you know, some of the institutions still enroll pretty paltry, you know, numbers of Black students in areas that have high percentages of Black students.

GROSS: You've been writing a little bit about education during this period of the pandemic. Do you think that Black students are being disproportionately disadvantaged by the pandemic?

HARRIS: I think, in some ways, yes, in part because of where a large chunk of Black students attend, right? Community college enrollments have shrunk over the last year. And, you know, in a place like North Carolina or elsewhere, you see high percentages of Black students at community colleges. And where those institutions don't have the resources to help those students stick it out and persist in higher education, they have been - Black students have kind of been on the losing end of that bargain. And so it's a pandemic that has been sort of unevenly felt in a lot of ways.

And, you know, for those students who ultimately - you know, maybe they lost a family member and they had to go home and help support family or whatever it may have been. There's a good chance they're leaving college with loans. And one of the things that research shows is that the people who often default on their loans - Black students, of course, are more likely to default on loans. They're more likely to take on more student loans, in part because of the lack of wealth among Black people. They may be in a situation where they are leaving college with no credential and with student loans that they will have difficulty paying off in the future. And so I think that it is setting up, in some cases, a worst possible scenario for some students.

GROSS: You write that the Biden administration is making an unprecedented investment in HBCUs. What is the Biden administration doing?

HARRIS: So each year, HBCUs receive about a billion dollars across, you know, roughly 15 programs from the federal government. Effectively, through the string of recovery acts and bills, HBCUs will receive about triple that this year. So they'll be receiving about $3 billion in funds from the federal government, which some of the institutions are now starting to use to pay off, you know, institutional debt, so balances that students still owed to the university, and other factors. And so they'll be able to put some of it towards deferred maintenance.

But I think the thing to remember is that this is a sort of one-time injection of funds. And so if you use it for deferred maintenance, then, yes, you can get your buildings back to where they need to be. But, you know, what happens when that money runs out? And so there is a push now to make that a more consistent kind of recurring thing so that it can start to put the institutions back on the path towards, you know, consistent financial stability.

GROSS: Well, Adam Harris, thank you so much for talking with us.

HARRIS: Thanks so much for having me.

GROSS: Adam Harris is a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of the new book "The State Must Provide: Why America's Colleges Have Always Been Unequal - And How To Set Them Right." After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the new miniseries "Nine Perfect Strangers," starring Nicole Kidman, based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, who also wrote the novel "Big Little Lies." This is FRESH AIR.

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