Are HBCUs in jeopardy?

Since their inception, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have educated countless Black doctors, lawyers, theologians, entrepreneurs, journalists, teachers, entertainers politicians and other professionals. Noted alumni range from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Oprah Winfrey to Houston’s own late U.S. Reps. Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland.

Yet despite a spike in enrollment at many of the nation’s 101 accredited HBCUs eight years ago, those numbers now appear to be on the decline.

According the National Center of Education Statistics, HBCU enrollment hovers at about 300,000 students nationwide. That number rose to about 325,000, in 2010, the year after Barack Obama became president.

Today, the tide seems to be shifting. In the five years following that 2010 spike, enrollment declined by 10 percent, compared to a 4 percent drop for all colleges during that period, federal data shows.

Between 2010 and 2015, 20 Black colleges saw enrollment plummet by more than 25 percent and only 22 Black colleges saw increases during that time. In Texas, enrollment is down at many HBCUs.

Texas Southern University President Dr. Austin Lane is among the leaders hoping to reverse that tide. Lane said he wants to expand enrollment to 15,000 students by 2020. Current enrollment is 10,237 students.

Lane plans to forge deeper relationships with Houston public schools and local community colleges, including Lone Star College, where as an administrator he played a pivotal role increasing full-time enrollment.

At least five HBCUs have closed since 1988, including Natchez Junior College, Morristown College, Mary Holmes College, Lewis College of Business and St. Paul’s College. Concordia College in Selma will close its doors at the end of the spring semester.

Some college finance experts predict that dozens of HBCUs will disappear in the next 20 years.

“I use a phrase that got me in trouble. After seven and a half years in this space and seeing a decline overall, my phrase is, ‘I am hopeful, but not optimistic,’ ” said Johnny Taylor, former president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports public HBCUs. Taylor believes as many as one-quarter of HBCUs will not survive the next two decades.

Overall, Texas HBCUs graduate fewer than 30 percent of their freshmen within six years. That is the case at more than half of HBCUs; the six-year graduation rate for all U.S. colleges is 59 percent.

EFFECTS OF INTEGRATION

During segregation, HBCUs attracted the best Black students in the country.

“HBCUs built the Black middle class,” said Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. “Without them, Blacks could not be where they are today.”

“For years, [HBCUs] had the pick of the very best and brightest,” added Lance Mitchell of the National Center of Education Statistics. “At the end of segregation, they had rich histories, and there was a tradition of students coming to prepare for future success.”

After the Civil Rights Movement, during which HBCU students played a paramount role, many institutions began making it their mission to serve first-generation and low-income students – like many of the descendants of slaves that the schools originally educated, Mitchell said.

If HBCUs were founded because Black students had no other place to go, they began to suffer when white schools started admitting Black students. Predominantly white schools continue to pick off some of Black colleges’ best prospects.

Fifty years ago, 90 percent of all Black college students went to Black colleges. Today, 90 percent of Black students are at mostly white schools.

“HBCUs were caught a little off guard by majority institutions when they integrated, swooped down and took the cream of the crop and then walked away,” said Claflin University President Henry Tisdale.

“Somehow, we had conceded that we couldn’t compete. We said, ‘Let them get the best and we will take what is remaining.’ ”

The challenges facing HBCUs are most noticeable at Georgia State University, which is not an HBCU. GSA graduated more Black students in 2017 than any institution in the nation.

Author and University of Missouri journalism professor Ron Stodghill theorized that by “the year 2035 the number of HBCUs will be down to 35 and only 15 of those will be thriving.”

Some scoff at such dire predictions, but it is not hard to find trouble spots.

FUNDING CUTS, FINANCIAL AID CHANGES

Some students arrive at Black colleges academically or financially unprepared. Even more than 150 years after HBCUs opened, many freshmen are still first-generation college students, and more than 70 percent of students receive some kind of federal financial aid.

Poor financial decisions put some HBCUs on the endangered list. Most HBCUs have never had large budgets, and the problem has become worse for many. In recent years:

  • States have cut funding to three out of four public HBCUs since the recession. Louisiana’s funding to Grambling State University, for example, was cut in half in a recent eight-year stretch.
  • The Obama administration tightened credit requirements on federal student loans in 2012. Suddenly, applicants for PLUS loans were turned down by the thousands, taking a deep slice of enrollment out of dozens of HBCUs. After a loud outcry from students, parents, colleges and lawmakers, the changes were rescinded in 2015.
  • HBCUs have long struggled to attract money from major foundations or donors. Bill and Camille Cosby’s $25 million gift to Spelman in 1988 is still believed to be the largest single donation to an HBCU.

ALUMNI RELATIONS

HBCUs have also looked inward at another longstanding problem – the lack of alumni support. Barely one in 10 graduates gave money back to their college, U.S. News & World Report reported. At Princeton, the most recent alumni giving rate was more than 60 percent, U.S. News said. At Morehouse, about 20 percent of alumni donate to the school.

Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., appears to be the leader. In 2016, more than 52 percent of its graduates gave donations totaling more than $1 million to the school. The year before, 50 percent gave, but they gave $1.4 million.

According to the HBCU Foundation, on average, alumni giving rates are 5 to 7 percent for public and 9 to 11 percent for private HBCUs, compared with the national average of 20 percent.

FUTURE CAN BE BRIGHTER

Experts say among other things, HBCUs must invest more money in technology to improve the financial aid submission process, a problem that frustrates countless students. Noting that half of all Black college students are taking online courses at community colleges, experts also say HBCUs need to step up with digital course offerings of their own.

“We have to ask ourselves what is the future for us?” said Dr. Paul Jones, the president at Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Ga. “What is it we have to do to ensure we are around for the next 100 years? We can be in the driver’s seat or the passenger’s seat. I want to be in the driver’s seat to ensure success.”

Some institutions are experiencing great growth in securing diverse funding, student enrollment and program offerings.

Paul Quinn College in Dallas is the first HBCU to be named a “work college” by the U.S. Department of Education. Students can learn new skills and receive coaching and evaluation from experts in their chosen fields. They work 10 to 20 hours a week and employers not only pay students for their work but also help fund tuition.

Students incur less debt and improve their educational experience through increased opportunity. Additionally, PQC does not have any institutional debt – the College received a $2.5 million dollar-gift from Trammell S. Crow to satisfy its balances.

In Baltimore, Morgan State University President David Wilson attributed his school’s growth to investments in the admissions process and the recruiting of more Latino and international students. A quarter of Morgan State’s students do not identify as Black.

Last fall, applications to Morgan State were up 20 percent. The new freshman class of about 1,250 students is the largest in five years.

“We have invested equally in ensuring that the nation and prospective students know the value of our programs,” Wilson said.