Six students at Florida A&M University sued the state and its public university system’s leaders Thursday, alleging Florida discriminated against the historically Black institution by underfunding it and keeping it from becoming the peer of traditionally White universities.
The lawsuitThe state is seeking class-action status in federal courts. It claims that the funding of the HBCU and its academic decisions violate civil rights law. It wants Florida to place the HBCU at the same level as the state’s White institutions in five years.
According to the lawsuit, Florida “has systematically engaged in policies that created and continue to sustain a racially segregated system for higher education throughout its history.”
Students filed the lawsuit less than a month after Florida A&M football players grabbed national headlines Weighing the option of not playing in the season-opening game was a decision that 26 players made. The team wrote a letter claiming that financial aid had not arrived on time, academic support staff was inadequate, summer classes were unavailable, and advising issues contributed to their ineligibility.
The case could have repercussions far beyond Florida. It is the result of persistent funding gaps have been documented at HBCUs located in other states. The Florida lawsuit raises one argument similar to a lawsuit that Maryland HBCU supporters fought against: that Maryland damaged the HBCU through duplicative programs that were allowed at predominantly White institutions.
One federal judge was elected last year approved a settlement Maryland’s four HBCUs will receive $577 million over a period of ten years.
Florida A&M opened in 1887 as a normal college for Black students — after the state was required to provide equal educational opportunities for Black students in order to qualify for federal land-grant funding. It has approximately 9,000 students today, making it one the most important HBCUs in America. It is one of the two land-grant universities in the state, alongside the University of Florida.
The lawsuit claims that the U.S. Department of Education informed the state in 1970 that it was breaking federal law by operating a segregated higher education system. Eight years later, it accepted an improvement plan from the state that included more money, improved facilities and stronger academics at Florida A&M.
To boost the university’s academics, the state was supposed to address unnecessary duplication of programs between Florida A&M and nearby traditionally White institutions, including by eliminating programs or creating joint programs.
In 2003, the state stated to the federal government that they had fulfilled the agreement. But the lawsuit says the state duplicated Florida A&M’s unique programs at traditionally White colleges between 1982 and today.
For example, Florida A&M and Florida State University, which are both located in Tallahassee, operate a joint engineering program. After taking prerequisite courses, students can enroll in either of the universities and then attend engineering-specific courses at a shared facility.
The number of Florida A&M students in the program has been declining, while the number of Florida State students has been increasing, according to the lawsuit. The state also yanked the shared college’s $13 million budget from Florida A&M in 2015 and placed it under Florida State’s authority, it says.
According to the lawsuit, “unnecessary academic programming duplication is detrimental, economically and socially.” “It is harmful to the State of Florida and FAMU’s students, including Plaintiffs and their proposed Class, as it wastes and dilutes limited State resources, which are already available to meet demand, and thereby decreases the economic efficiencies of our higher education system.”
It also perpetuates segregation and hurts Florida A&M’s enrollment, the lawsuit argues.
Florida’s 2014 performance-based funding model is also under attack. It provides funding to some students based on the metrics adopted by Florida’s state universities, including median wages and graduation rates for four years.
The lawsuit claims that the system unfairly compares schools serving students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
In 2018, the university was among three institutions that did not receive any of the funding granted under the performance program.
The lawsuit goes on to compare funding for Florida A&M and the University of Florida. Florida A&M received $110 million in state appropriations in 2019, or $11,450 per student. The University of Florida received $785million, or $14,984 for each student.
Between 1987 and 2020, Florida A&M has received $1.3 billion less than the University of Florida, according to the law firm representing the students, Grant & Eisenhofer.
According to the lawsuit, Black students have seen their graduation rates rise at Florida’s public college. Despite the fact that the state has agreed with Black students to increase their graduation rates, the gap between Black and White students is growing, not shrinking.
In 2018, Florida A&M’s first-time, full-time four-year graduation rate was 21.6%, the lowest in the state university system. The University of Florida’s rate was 67.3%. Two years later, Florida A&M’s rate had improved by 6.1 percentage points, while the University of Florida’s increased even more, by 7.4 percentage points.
The lawsuit also says the state effectively makes it harder for Florida A&M to build or update facilities.
The lawsuit claims that capital improvements take 10 more years to complete at HBCUs on average than they do at traditionally White institutions.
“This is demonstrative of Defendants’ lack of good faith,” it says.
A spokesperson for the State University System of Florida stated in an email that they do not comment on litigation pending. A Florida A&M spokesperson said the same.
Maryland is a good example of HBCU law, but could there be more?
The Florida A&M lawsuit’s claims of program duplication may bring to mind the case seeking more funding for Maryland HBCUs. But no one from the Maryland case is involved in the one in Florida, according to Barbara Hart, principal at Grant & Eisenhofer.
Hart hopes Hart can resolve Florida’s case quicker than Maryland’s. Hart also wants to speed up the Maryland case. Hart won’t be able to do that last year. The Maryland case against HBCUs took 15 years to resolve. A federal judge wrote in 2013 The program duplication was a factor in student choice but both sides remained in mediation for many more years.
The Florida A&M students’ lawsuit has some strategic differences, Hart said. For example, Florida A&M is a single public land-grant university, which allows for funding comparisons with other land-grant institutions.
Hart stated that “there is an opportunity to really drill into what would constitute apples-to-apples financing.”
Hart indicated that he was open to accepting other cases similar to his own.
Hart said, “If students approach us and we are able establish the concrete financing disparities we were able to analyze here, then we will be their allies.”