6:00: Morning News

West Virginia State’s land grant was underfunded millions and millions over 30 years, federal officials say

Federal officials say a state funding gap for West Virginia State University added up to almost $853 million over three decades.

“These funds could have supported infrastructure and student services and would have better positioned the university to compete for research grants,” wrote the U.S. secretaries for Education and Agriculture in a letter to Gov. Jim Justice.

“West Virginia State University has been able to make remarkable strides and would be much stronger and better positioned to serve its students, your state, and the nation if made whole with respect to this funding gap.”

Similar letters from U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack were sent to 15 other states concluded to have allowed a funding gap for many of the nation’s land grant institutions. Altogether, they assessed, land grant institutions at Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been shorted by $13 billion over 30 years. 

West Virginia State is one of the nation’s historically Black colleges established with the intention of primarily serving African Americans. It was established as the West Virginia Colored Institute in 1891 under the second Morrill Act that provided for land grant institutions for Black students that had segregated schools.

The financial comparison being made by federal officials is to a separate category of land-grant institutions, the ones established in those states for white students in 1862. Those first land grant institutions were established by the first Morrill Act for institutions teaching teaching military tactics, engineering and agriculture. West Virginia University was the state’s first land grant.

“West Virginia State University, the 1890 land-grant institution in your state, while producing extraordinary graduates that contribute greatly to the state’s economy and the fabric of our nation, has not been able to advance in ways that are on par with West Virginia University, the original Morrill Act of 1862 land-grant institution in your state, in large part due to unbalanced funding,” the federal officials wrote to the governor.

Federal officials used a data set from 1987 to 2020 to calculate the amount institutions would have received if their state funding were equal to that of their 1862 counterparts.

“These funds could have supported infrastructure and student services and would have better positioned the university to compete for research grants. West Virginia State University has been able to make remarkable strides and would be much stronger and better positioned to serve its students, your state, and the nation if made whole with respect to this funding gap,” the federal officials wrote.

One challenge of assessing what West Virginia State’s land grant funding should have been over all those years was that the land grant status — contingent on state matching funds — lapsed over an extended period.

In 1957, West Virginia State’s land grant status was lost when state officials voted to end the state funding required for the matching federal land grant aid. The university, under longtime President Hazo Carter, later went through a long process to try to get the land grant designation restored.

That effort culminated in 1991 when then-Gov. Gaston Caperton signed a bill to recognize the land grant status on the state level. U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd was then at the center of successful efforts at the federal level to restore land grant status at the federal level in 2001.

In recent years, leaders at West Virginia State have continued to push the Legislature to fully fund West Virginia State at the levels required by the federal match.

In 2019, university leaders celebrated finally receiving a full state match.

Anthony Jenkins

“This is a historic moment. We get our full state match for the first time in the history of this institution,” then-President Anthony Jenkins said that year. “We have been fighting this battle for more than 20 years. After years and years of failed attempts, I am honored and proud we got it through this year.”

Jenkins had lobbied regularly at the Capitol for a full state match. The state allocation of $2.9 million finally meant West Virginia State would be able to draw down $2.9 million in federal support that year.

“This is federal law, and the state cannot purposely and knowingly violate federal law,” Jenkins said in 2019. “We felt that was somewhat the case because you were funding one land grant institution as you should and underfunding the other, which is us.”

Now, West Virginia State officials say they are aware of underfunding issues over the years. But in a statement responding to the recent federal letter, West Virginia State officials said they appreciate West Virginia’s current support.

Ericke Cage

“Their letter to Governor Jim Justice speaks for itself and lays out what we have known for some time and that is historically our country’s 1890 land-grant universities, including West Virginia State University, have been underfunded,” stated the current president at West Virginia State, Ericke Cage.

That lack of funding through the years has led to a significant loss of opportunities for our students, faculty and staff, who have had to do more with less.”

But Cage’s statement said West Virginia State is focused on the future, saying legislators and the governor have been supportive of funding for the land grant mission.

“We look forward to continuing to work with our partners in the executive and legislative branches to continue to move West Virginia State University and the Mountain State forward,” Cage stated.

The letter from the federal officials suggested that additional state support would be welcome.

“Given the large amount of state funding that is owed to West Virginia State University, it would be ambitious to address the funding disparity over the course of several years in the state budget. It might very well be your desire to do so, which we wholeheartedly support,” wrote Cardona and Vilsack.

“Yet, if an ambitious timetable is not a possibility, we suggest a combination of a substantial state allocation toward the 1890 deficit combined with a forward-looking budget commitment for a two-to-one match of federal land-grant funding for these institutions in order to bring parity to funding levels.”

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