Waiel Turner, 20, was not planning on going to college. He thought about entering the U.S. Air Force or becoming a police officer for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
Enrolling at Harris-Stowe State University was strictly happenstance.
In 2017, he accompanied a friend to the campus in midtown St. Louis where she was registering for classes. An admissions counselor told Turner he should enroll. Two days later, Turner became a college student.
Turner said it is the family environment that makes Harris-Stowe home for him. Like many historically black colleges and universities, Harris-Stowe is struggling to keep its tight-knit family of students and staff together in the face of shaky finances and relative lack of state resources.
“Everything here is razor thin,” said Brian Huggins, Harris-Stowe State University’s chief financial officer. “Every operating budget is barebones; every departmental budget is barebones, meaning there is no fat. At Harris-Stowe, you have to do 10 jobs because we can't afford to hire the three other people needed to do those other jobs.”
Harris-Stowe is one of two public HBCUs in the state and is one of 13 four-year public universities in Missouri. The school receives the smallest state appropriation among the institutions. For fiscal 2018, Harris-Stowe had the lowest enrollment, at about 1,700 full-time and part-time students. It is also the lowest-cost public institution in the state.
Over 80% of Harris-Stowe students receive Pell Grant funding. Pell Grants are federal funds provided to college students with greater financial needs. And because most of the students' tuition is subsidized through the government, Harris-Stowe is required to maintain low tuition rates and service the state’s low-income communities.
'A lot out of a little'
Students are affected by the size of the state appropriation, Huggins said.
“Things have to be deferred, or choices have to be made,” he said. “Things like deferred maintenance get put off to next year or the following year. There are fewer full-time professors here, so now we have adjunct professors.”
According to Missouri’s Department of Higher Education, for fiscal 2019, Harris-Stowe’s in-state tuition and fees are nearly $6,000 a year for a full-time student. And according to Harris-Stowe’s budgets, its operating revenue is about $20 million.
According to state data, its operating revenue is even less, $15 million. That’s about half of Missouri Western State University's, which has an operating revenue of $34.5 million. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the University of Missouri, which has operating revenue of about $2 billion.
“We make a lot out of a little,” Huggins said.
Harris-Stowe offers over 50 academic majors, with STEM being the main focus. Though funding is limited, Huggins said the school is doing its best to match the demand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.
'At a disadvantage'
Maximizing the student experience with limited state funding is difficult, but it is the same approach Lincoln University’s vice president of administration and finance, Sandra Koetting, said Lincoln is taking because of its mission to serve the state’s low-income students.
Although Lincoln, in Jefferson City, is classified as an HBCU, the African American population is not in the majority. Koetting said this puts Lincoln in a distinctive position, but it still feels the brunt of low state appropriations.
“It costs more in order to provide the level of service and accommodations that we do. As an HBCU institution, our endowments are not as large as some" predominantly white institutions, Koetting said. “And so, the resources available for scholarships have an impact on recruitment efforts, and you are at a disadvantage because you don't have the same level of resources as many of the other, larger institutions.”
Tuition at Harris-Stowe and Lincoln accounts for less than 20% of their total revenue. Most other schools in the state generate around twice that from tuition.
Lincoln University has about 2,500 full-time and part-time undergraduate students. For fiscal 2019, in-state undergraduate students pay about $7,600 in tuition, and, according to the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, the institution has a budget of nearly $40 million.
A land-grant university
But Lincoln’s state and federal funds are allocated a bit differently than Harris-Stowe's. Lincoln is an 1890 land-grant university. To accompany that title, the school must offer courses and research programming within all areas of food and agricultural sciences to students yearly.
Koetting said there is always a discussion over how to ensure equity across all of the state’s universities, but there are challenges with smaller institutions.
For Lincoln, its land-grant statues are one of those challenges.
“We've been struggling with the state to provide equal matching funds for Lincoln University, and we have not been entirely successful,” Koetting said. “So when you talk about funding inequities, that's one of them.”
In order for Lincoln to receive all of its land-grant funds, the state must match the USDA’s $7 million contribution, which varies from year to year. This year, Missouri only sent $3.8 million to the school. In order to avoid having to pay back the shortfall, Lincoln asked the USDA to forgive the portion of the contribution the state did not pay out.
As of today, Lincoln has been waiting about six months to hear back from the USDA.
Koetting said she has been trying to persuade the state of Missouri to increase support to help fulfill the land-grant requirements.
Zora Mulligan, Missouri’s commissioner of higher education, said the department is doing everything it can with tight budgets to better fund both Harris-Stowe and Lincoln. And she said the state is looking for ways to keep the only two HBCUs in Missouri alive.
“Harris-Stowe and Lincoln are really important contributors to the overall higher education landscape in Missouri and have a unique mission,” Mulligan said. “In terms of what we're doing to make sure they maintain vitality, we have been really proud to recommend special funding for them in the last couple of years in terms of competitive grant funding.”
In the current fiscal year, 17 out of 27 public state institutions (including community colleges) were awarded the MoExcels grant. Though not all institutions applied for the grant, both Harris-Stowe and Lincoln received money to expand their workforces and add specialized programming. Harris-Stowe received $85,800 to help education students earn teaching certifications, and Lincoln was awarded $112,350 to support its nursing bridge program.
In spite of the recent grant assistance from the state, Harris-Stowe and Lincoln are still behind other schools. Koetting said Lincoln’s science labs haven’t been updated in over 10 years. And Harris-Stowe has similar issues.
“We're restricted in our program offerings by budget, by facilities and by resources. We've been growing,” said Andre Smith, social sciences department chair at Harris-Stowe. “But at the same time, this school produces more African American bachelor degrees and in mathematics than any of the other universities and system — but we do not have a computer science program.”
Smith is also the co-author of an article about Harris-Stowe’s funding and the paradox of state funding for the 2020 issue of Howard University's The Journal of Negro Education.
The endowment gap
Predominantly white institutions often have deep pockets when it comes to endowments and fundraising.
Not so for Missouri’s two HBCUs.
“We've been around since 1857, but our endowment has only been around since the early 2000s. We have a separate foundation, and no, we are nowhere near where we want to be or where we should be,” said Harris-Stowe’s Huggins.
Harris-Stowe’s endowment is the lowest among Missouri’s public universities at a little over a million dollars. Although Lincoln's endowment is more than seven times higher than Harris-Stowe’s, it doesn’t compare to the University of Missouri-Columbia’s endowment, which is the largest in the state and exceeds $1 billion.
Smith said one way for HBCUs to bridge the gap would be for alumni to invest in the schools.
As for Lincoln, Koetting said that since the HBCU is just a mile away from the state Capitol, leaders have an advantage on educating lawmakers about why investing in HBCUs is critical.
“There are a lot of factors, I think, that come into play with seeking donations and endowments, and creating endowments for an HBCU,” she said. “I don't know what the answer is on how to how to jump that hurdle, but I think part of what we're trying to do is really get out there and tell our story. But your story can only go so far.”
Sharing the narrative of HBCUs is an ongoing effort for both Koetting and Huggins. And as for Harris-Stowe sophomore Turner, he knows Huggins is fighting for his education.
“Everybody in my family has a degree. My aunt works in the White House right now. My grandma is a teacher. My uncle owns his own construction company. Everybody does something big in our family,” Turner said. “And so for me, as a black male, that's not an option for me not to go to school.”
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon.