Posted on October 23, 2019

H.B.C.U.s’ Sink-or-Swim Moment

Delece Smith-Barrow, New York Times, October 21, 2019


{snip} The legacy of H.B.C.U.s is in every thread of American life. {snip} Although H.B.C.U.s make up only 3 percent of four-year colleges in the country, they have produced 80 percent of the nation’s black judges and 50 percent of its black doctors. Among black college graduates with a degree in STEM, 27 percent are from historically black colleges. And remarkably, H.B.C.U.s have trained roughly 50 percent of black teachers.


Rising college costs, the student loan crisis and federal budget cuts have broadly hamstrung higher education. But it’s killing H.B.C.U.s, where nearly three in five attendees are low-income, first-generation students and over 70 percent of students have limited financial resources. Fifteen of them have closed since 1997. Public and private H.B.C.U. endowments taken together are now roughly 70 percent smaller than that of non-H.B.C.U.s. And private historically black colleges saw a 42 percent decline in federal funding between 2003 and 2015. H.B.C.U.s are awarding fewer doctorates now than they did in 1977, and a report found that the six-year graduation rates at 20 H.B.C.U.s were 20 percent or lower in 2015.

While some marquee institutions with relatively large endowments, like Spelman College and Hampton University, face more common challenges, a large majority of H.B.C.U.s are facing existential threats and will need to be transformed, reinvigorated, to ensure their futures are as vibrant as their pasts.


{snip} In 1976, 18 percent of black college students were enrolled at H.B.C.U.s, but in 2010 only 9 percent were — a number that has barely budged. In Atlanta, Morris Brown College, once a powerhouse, lost accreditation in 2002. It now offers just four bachelor’s degree majors. Paine College, also in Georgia, is currently in a fight with one of its accreditors and its fate hangs on pending court decisions. Howard University, perhaps the most well-known H.B.C.U., is under additional monitoring from the Department of Education for perceived mismanagement of funds.

Across the country, these schools are struggling in the competition for black students, particularly as predominantly white colleges are recognizing the power of diversity, offering larger financial aid packages and slicker facilities while atoning for their role in racist systems. {snip}

Some schools have turned to crowdfunding. Bennett College, an all-women’s H.B.C.U. in North Carolina, was on the brink of closing in December after losing accreditation because of its financial instability. So the college began a #StandWithBennett campaign. It raised $8.2 million by February and regained accreditation, for now. {snip}

In 2017, after almost shuttering, Paul Quinn College in Texas turned the campus football field into a farm and the school into a work college, the first H.B.C.U. of that kind. {snip}

Tennessee State University and Morgan State University in Baltimore have placed their bets on boosting their international student enrollment by the hundreds. For the past decade, most of their students from abroad have come from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and pay full tuition plus room and board for the precious commodity of an American STEM or business degree. It has been so lucrative that Morgan State has even increased the number of engineering classes offered over the summer to meet the demand.

{snip} There are hundreds of colleges that have low graduation rates and struggle financially, but the pain felt by H.B.C.U.s is concentrated within a specific minority community. {snip}

Any school ultimately has three funding streams. Of those three, public sources (grants, and federal, state and local appropriations) for H.B.C.U.s have been slashed, private investment is low, and H.B.C.U.s’ ability to raise tuition and fees — without either violating their core mission or suppressing the number of students who will even apply — is limited.


For H.B.C.U.s, alumni enthusiasm is high, but out of the 46 H.B.C.U.s covered in a 2017 article by U.S. News & World Report, only 11 percent of alumni per school donated on average.

Several top Democratic presidential candidates have announced plans for billions more in H.B.C.U. investment. And the school’s continued track record in producing middle-class black families proves it would be a worthy one. For all of their struggles, two-thirds of low-income students at H.B.C.U.s end up in the middle class or better. But regardless of who is in office, the likelihood of any future Democratic Congress with an inevitably small majority passing expensive legislation catering to one minority group is slim.

{snip} The schools will need to further engage alumni beyond homecoming events and Greek life. It may also be helpful for them to create broader marketing campaigns — to lobby school counselors and state departments of education to better explain the richness of H.B.C.U.s — explicitly encouraging students of other races to apply as well.

{snip} But the harsh reality is that time may be running out for dozens of historically black colleges. If the federal government doesn’t issue a rescue mission in the coming decade, it’s a tragic extinction we should be prepared for.