Black colleges in the United States are reeling from the impact of a recession that has hit their funding and are struggling to retain poor and middle income students.
“All the trends are bad right now,” said Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, which raises money for 39 of the 103 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States.
In a dramatic example, Clark Atlanta University laid off 70 of its 229 full-time faculty members and consolidated classes in its arts and science school last week when 300 students out of an enrollment of about 4,000 failed to return for the spring semester because of cost.
“Ninety-eight percent of our students require financial aid. As that became less accessible, increasingly our students have found they were unable to return,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Jiles.
As it stands, the $787 billion stimulus bill includes money to make an “incredible difference” to HBCUs, said Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
It would include more than $800 million for infrastructure projects on HBCU campuses and $500 million over two years for improvements in technology as well as increased federal grants for students from low-income families, she said.
HBCUs enroll 14 percent of African American students but constitute only 3 percent of America’s 4,084 institutions of higher education, according to government figures.
Many boast a tradition of promoting black leadership: civil rights leader Martin Luther King and film maker Spike Lee attended Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Educator Booker T. Washington founded Tuskegee University in Alabama in 1881 and prominent agriculturalist George Washington Carver set up its agricultural school.
In contrast, Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles and Columbia University in New York, neither an HBCU.
Since segregation was banned in the 1960s, the black schools have diversified. Many have multiracial faculties and go out of their way to attract non-black students.
West Virginia State University is classed as an HBCU, though its student body is mainly white.
The 47 state-run HBCU’s and six law schools are in the same boat as other state colleges, forced to cut costs and delay capital projects, said Dwayne Ashley, chief executive of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which funds students at state HBCU’s.
Ashley said HBCUs provided a “nurturing environment”.
Few cite racial solidarity as a key attraction, perhaps fearing accusations over political correctness. But many students say they chose an HBCU partly to be among other African Americans after attending racially mixed high schools.