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DOVER, Del. — Nearly 150 years after its founding, the end was near for Wesley College.

A fixture of Delaware’s state capital, the private liberal arts institution had a reputation for offering a close-knit and supportive atmosphere for its students. Even so, its enrollment had dwindled from a high of 2,250 students in 2003 to about 1,000 by 2020.

But a rescue, of sorts, was just a mile and a half away. Delaware State University, the state’s only historically Black college or university, saw in Wesley College an opportunity to meet its own ambitious expansion goals.

Wesley College, in downtown Dover, Delaware, had a reputation as a supportive environment for its students. But enrollment dwindled to about 1,000 students in its last year of operation. Credit: Christina A. Samuels/The Hechinger Report

Delaware State officially acquired the 50 acres of land and 21 buildings of Wesley College last July in what was a notable muscle flex in the HBCU sector, which supporters say has been underfunded and underappreciated.

“Our culture has been ‘heads down, do the work, support, educate, graduate kids,’ ” said Tony Allen, the president of Delaware State. The pandemic intensified that mission. “HBCUs in particular have done a yeoman’s job in taking care of their students during this crisis.

“But there have been opportunities that have emerged in front of us that we all think are time-limited, so it really is about seizing this unique opportunity and time.”

Historically Black universities such as Delaware State University may be able to take advantage of “unique opportunities,” says Tony Allen, the president of DSU since January 2020. Credit: Christina A. Samuels/The Hechinger Report

Melanie Carter, the director of the Center for HBCU Research, Leadership, and Policy at Howard University, agrees with Allen that HBCUs find themselves in a more powerful and positive position than they have had in the past.

For one thing, they have recently benefited from philanthropic largesse, including billionaire MacKenzie Scott’s $560 million in unrestricted donations to 23 historically Black universities, including Delaware State, which received $20 million.

Carter believes that George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement also created “a tipping point,” as she put it. “Black people, for example, really felt like they needed to have their institutions close — that they are safer there. There has been a Black agency around being vocal about our institutions, and other people have felt the need to join that.”

In Delaware, 47 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students are awarded by Delaware State University.

And indeed, students have recently shown more interest in HBCUs. Several of the largest and best-known institutions have reported enrollment gains since 2019, despite the pandemic.

The Trump administration made explicit overtures to HBCU leadership, establishing a President’s Board of Advisors on historically Black colleges. Trump also signed a bipartisan bill making $255 million in funding permanent for STEM programs at HBCUs and other institutions that serve high numbers of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students.

That support has continued in the Biden administration. In a commencement speech given to South Carolina State University, President Joe Biden, a Delaware native, said he won his first election to the Senate thanks to organizing at Delaware State. Allen chairs Biden’s advisory board on HBCUs.

Related: Many HBCUs are teetering between surviving and thriving

And yet times are not perfect. The FBI is investigating a recent spate of bomb threats against HBCUs, including 13 different threats made on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. And the Build Back Better infrastructure bill in Congress, which would have increased funding for HBCUs and other universities serving high numbers of Black and Hispanic students, is likely dead after Sen. Joe Manchin said he would not support the $2 trillion package. Had Build Back Better passed, it would have included money for long-overdue campus infrastructure improvements at many HBCUs; university leaders are now asking Congress to allow them to use a portion of their Covid relief funds for that purpose.

Many smaller HBCUs are struggling with the same forces that led to Wesley’s closure, and are trying to combat underfunding. A 2019 report from the American Council on Education and the United Negro College Fund found that between 2003 and 2015, when federal funding decreased for all colleges and universities, public and private HBCUs faced the sharpest drops.

Wesley College, in downtown Dover, Delaware, had a reputation as a supportive environment for its students. But enrollment dwindled to about 1,000 students in its last year of operation. Credit: Christina A. Samuels/The Hechinger Report

That same report noted that public HBCUs depend on tax dollars for 54 percent of their funding, while non-HBCU public colleges and universities get only 34 percent of their funding from public sources.

States have only recently started to address some of these funding and underinvestment issues. In March 2021, the governor of Maryland settled a lawsuit by agreeing to provide $577 million over the next decade to the state’s four historically Black colleges. The colleges argued successfully that predominantly white institutions in the state had been allowed to duplicate the HBCUs’ academic programs, thus drawing away potential students and tuition dollars.

In Tennessee, a bipartisan committee released a report finding that Tennessee State University, an HBCU in Nashville, had been underfunded by the state since the 1950s. In his latest budget proposal, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, proposed giving the university $250 million for infrastructure improvements in his fiscal 2023 budget.

Tony Allen, the president of Delaware State University, and Robert Clark II, the last president of Wesley College, wait to speak at an event marking Delaware State’s acquisition of Wesley College. The college is now a satellite campus housing Delaware State’s health sciences program. Credit: Christina A. Samuels/The Hechinger Report

 In 2002, the state of Mississippi reached a settlement in a lawsuit about the underfunding of its historically Black colleges. As part of the agreement, the state agreed to distribute $503 million over 17 years to Alcorn State University in Lorman, Jackson State University in Jackson and Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena. The final distribution is scheduled to be made this year.

HBCUs also lag behind predominantly white universities when it comes to endowments. While the top 10 endowments among predominantly white institutions total $200 billion, the 10 largest HBCU endowments in 2020 added up to just a fraction of that — $2 billion, according to the Brookings Institution.

Related: At some HBCUs, enrollment rises from surprising applicants

Despite those persistent financial challenges, graduates of HBCUs report being happy with their choices. A 2022 Strada-Gallup Education Survey found that HBCU graduates were more likely to report that they received a “high-quality education” and that they learned “important” skills than were Black students who attended non-HBCU colleges where at least 40 percent of the student body is Black.

 “It’s not that HBCUs don’t have great stories — they don’t have enough storytellers,” said Allen, at a presentation sharing the Strada findings.

Delaware State rewrote its own story when it stepped up to bid for its struggling neighbor.

“There has been a Black agency around being vocal about our institutions, and other people have felt the need to join that.”

Melanie Carter, director, Center for HBCU Research, Leadership, and Policy at Howard University

Wesley had not immediately considered Delaware State as a potential partner, Allen said, despite its proximity. “We are literally a mile and a half from Wesley, and they shopped themselves kind of all around us.”

So, on his first day as president in January 2020, Allen had breakfast with the president of Wesley, Robert Clark II.

“I said, ‘I’m watching you try to save the institution, I appreciate that,’ ” Allen said. “ ‘But Delaware State wants an at-bat.’ ” The University of Delaware in Newark had been in talks in Wesley in 2019. Saint Leo University in Tampa was reportedly another potential merger partner.

Robert Clark II, the last president of Wesley College, speaks at an event commemorating the acquisition of the college by nearby Delaware State University. Credit: Christina A. Samuels/The Hechinger Report

The acquisition, which will cost Delaware State $15 million over the next 3 years, will serve Allen’s goal to roughly double enrollment over the next several years, to 10,000 students. Delaware State also gained access to Wesley’s health sciences programs, as well as a site for the university to expand and consolidate its early college high school.

One of the reasons Allen believes the Wesley acquisition was a logical step for Delaware State was because of similarities in the students attending each institution.

Although Wesley College, founded by the Methodist Church, was not created to serve students of color, over time it became racially and economically diverse. In 2019, just before Wesley’s last year as an independent institution, its student body was 39 percent Black, 37 percent white, 8 percent Hispanic and 7 percent multiracial. Sixty-one percent of its students were receiving Pell Grants, and its six-year graduation rate was 29 percent.

The Henry Belin du Pont College Center, the centerpiece of Wesley College, was completed in 1974 during a period of growth for the institution. Wesley College was acquired last year by nearby Delaware State University. Credit: Christina A. Samuels/ The Hechinger Report

In comparison, Delaware State’s student body is 71 percent Black, 9 percent white, 7 percent Hispanic and 6 percent multiracial. It has a similar percentage of students with Pell Grants — 55 — but its six-year graduation rate is 48 percent, and it awards fully 47 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students in Delaware, though the college enrolls only about a quarter of the state’s Black undergraduates.

But the deal has not been free from tension. Delaware State said it offered positions to 60 percent of Wesley’s staff and all of its students, but it discontinued the smaller college’s Division III sports program, a disappointing move for some. Also, a group of Wesley faculty sued to stop the acquisition, saying that it was a breach of faculty contracts. That lawsuit is ongoing.

“I’ve had to correct more than a few people on the fact that this is an acquisition [not a merger]. I think that’s because there are still some perceptions about what’s possible for institutions like ours.”

Tony Allen, president, Delaware State University

Allen’s ambitions don’t stop with the Wesley acquisition. Last year, Capital One bank gave Delaware State a 35,000-square-foot office building in Wilmington, the largest city in Delaware. Allen envisions that space as a location for graduate studies and a business incubator.

As Delaware State navigates its future, it remains to be seen whether other HBCUs will be able to seize opportunities to strengthen themselves. Allen hopes his institution’s actions will open people’s eyes to the power that HBCUs have in their larger communities.

“I’ve had to correct more than a few people on the fact that this is an acquisition,” Allen said. “Even though it’s been written about, and we’ve been clear in all of our communications, people have still wanted to think about this as a merger. I think that’s because there are still some perceptions about what’s possible for institutions like ours. And I think anything is possible. We just put our heads up, got focused, saw a unique opportunity and seized it.”

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