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Serve Students, Not Institutions

City Journal

October 16, 2023

More than 20,000 physical therapists left the profession in 2021 alone, notes a recent report. It’s therefore hard to imagine why anyone would want to discourage universities from offering more physical therapy programs to help renew the ranks. Unfortunately, that’s just what the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) did recently when it voted to stop Johns Hopkins and Stevenson Universities from launching Ph.D. programs in physical therapy this fall. The commission wanted to keep rivals from competing with the University of Maryland–Eastern Shore (UMES), a public historically black college, which has its own physical therapy degree and doesn’t want anyone encroaching on its turf.

An organization called Advocates for Maryland HBCUs, which had lobbied for the decision, was thrilled. “The MHEC Commissioners recognized demonstrable harm could come to UMES if an immense, world renowned, private university such as Johns Hopkins University or Stevenson University is granted the authority to duplicate the Ph.D. in Physical Therapy Program held at UMES,” according to the group’s statement.

This isn’t the first time the group has tried to stop other schools from competing with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In August, Towson University withdrew a proposal for a doctoral program in business analytics because advocates said that it was too similar to a program at Morgan State University, a nearby HBCU. The commission had voted in favor of the program, but the state’s attorney general said that not enough members were present for the vote. (Towson is planning to appeal.)

What is going on here? Why does the MHEC get to decide how many students should study physical therapy or business analytics? How do these would-be central planners know the optimal number of subject programs for the state, or which universities should be offering them? The answer, of course, is that they don’t—they are doing this to protect HBCUs from competition.  

The HBCUs, founded before most other private and public universities were desegregated, have in more recent decades struggled to find a purpose and remain financially viable. Even the most prominent among them have seen enrollment fall. In 1976, 18 percent of black college students went to HBCUs. Today, the proportion is about half of that. The shrinking number of students has hurt the schools’ public funding, as well as private gifts. Many students are choosing to go to other public or private universities or community colleges. One report found that six-year graduation rates at 20 HBCUs stood at 20 percent or lower in 2015. This is not the kind of record that makes students flock to a school.

Race-based affirmative action policies of the past few decades drew many students away from HBCUs and into other institutions that wanted to diversify their student bodies. HBCU advocates didn’t object to these measures at the time. It is true that many of these institutions do a better job of graduating black students with degrees in STEM fields (because they are less prone to the academic “mismatch” problem), but one wonders whether that will continue now that the Supreme Court has barred racial preferences at other schools.

In any case, HBCUs must figure out how to survive in the current environment. One way has been to demand more public funds. Advocates sued Maryland in 2006, claiming that the state had treated HBCUs unfairly by offering state support at predominantly white institutions that duplicated programs at HBCUs. The state settled the case for more than half a billion dollars. Recently, the Department of Education sent a letter to governors in 16 states claiming that they, too, had underfunded HBCUs, to the tune of $12 billion over 30 years. These claims have the ring of a reparations scheme.

Public HBCUs designated as land-grant universities are supposed to receive funds from their state governments matching what the federal government gives them. In some cases, states have failed to meet that bar. In others, the advocates claim that the states simply haven’t been giving as much money to these schools as they have given to, say, flagship public universities. Never mind that these flagship schools often have much larger research programs, or that the HBCUs resemble community colleges in their offerings and graduation rates. (it’s a vicious circle, the advocates say: the schools don’t perform as well or do as much research because they don’t get enough money.)

The important point is that the vast majority of black college students in Maryland and everywhere else are attending non-HBCUs. The state’s duty is to help provide education for individual students, not prop up institutions that claim a particular historical pedigree. And none of this explains how Maryland can get away with preventing private universities like Johns Hopkins and Stevenson from offering whatever degree program they want. The goal for state leaders in Maryland and around the country should be to ensure that their citizens have unfettered access to the best education possible. Blocking great universities from opening up new programs to reduce the competition will have the opposite effect.