NEW ORLEANS — Jasmine Stewart applied to only one college — the historically black Southern University at New Orleans. It was near home, willing to take her despite her mixed academic record, and comparatively cheap. Stewart also didn’t want her mother, a hotel housekeeper, to have to pay more than one application fee.
But after two and a half semesters, she has had her share of disappointments.
The public university, known as SUNO, has no football team, no marching band, and teachers who often come from other countries and speak with accents she can’t understand. Parts of the campus damaged by Hurricane Katrina eight years ago, including the library, have yet to be fully repaired. A shelf in a student lounge where Stewart sometimes hangs out is stocked with 20-year-old Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia yearbooks.
Stewart doesn’t regret enrolling at SUNO, and says she appreciates the supportive environment and help administrators gave her with financial aid paperwork. But she added, “The college experience isn’t what I thought it would be.”
SUNO’s struggles — and Stewart’s loyalty in spite of them — are emblematic of broader issues facing colleges and universities set up to serve black students, many of which are struggling with enrollment and financial problems.
Dozens of predominantly black colleges are facing battles to stay alive — battles even their supporters agree that some will lose.
“I do predict several HBCUs will close,” said Jarrett Carter, the editor of the online blog HBCUDigest.com, using the acronym for historically black colleges and universities. “It’s not a question of if, but when.”
These institutions are among the most vulnerable among universities and colleges of all types beset by financial woes. As a group they suffer disproportionately from small endowments, subpar facilities, and underprepared students. And with lower graduation rates on average, they would be particularly vulnerable under President Barack Obama’s proposal to financially punish colleges and universities that graduate the fewest students. Even the most elite black colleges are struggling financially, with Moody’s Investors Service downgrading Howard University’s credit rating in September and Morehouse University eliminating 66 administrative jobs in August.
When most historically black colleges opened between the close of the Civil War and the end of legal segregation, black students had more-limited opportunities to go to college, particularly in states that excluded them from flagship public universities. Today, with overt racial discrimination outlawed, they face increased competition not only from traditional colleges and universities, but from for-profit and online institutions.
Officials in North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia have proposed or hinted at merging historically black colleges into nearby, predominantly white institutions. Atlanta’s Morris Brown College languishes on life support, down to its last 50 students and under bankruptcy protection. So decrepit have the athletic facilities become at cash-strapped Grambling State University, the football team boycotted a game in protest. And 125-year-old Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, closed this summer after being stripped of its accreditation.
But if historically black colleges are among the most vulnerable of higher education institutions, they are also among the most resilient. While the number of women’s colleges has dropped from 300 or so in 1960 to about 45 today, the number of black colleges has dipped only modestly over the same time period, from around 120 to 105.
That’s partly because they have the vehement political support of the black middle class in places like New Orleans. Meanwhile, some have retained a niche market in students who want the support of faculty and fellow students from similar backgrounds, while others have developed nationally recognized programs, such as Xavier University’s College of Pharmacy.
Part of Louisiana’s public Southern University System, the only historically black college system in the U.S., SUNO opened in 1959 in spite of fierce opposition from black civil rights leaders who described it as an intolerable continuation of Jim Crow.
When Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed two years ago that SUNO be merged with the University of New Orleans, many of the same civil rights groups rose to defend it, crediting the school with lifting scores of black New Orleanians out of poverty and into the middle class.
“We finally get SUNO to where it’s ‘our’ school and now that it’s ‘our’ school you want to take it back from us,” Louisiana State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat, said.
There were also worries that the merger would shut out students with lower standardized-test scores and grades, like Stewart, who have historically relied on SUNO’s open door. SUNO’s supporters said it would try harder than other institutions to preserve college access for underprepared and nontraditional students, such as single, working parents. “HBCUs take in students knowing they are the least likely to graduate,” said Morrell.
But their critics point to the weak results at some historically black colleges, arguing that they are as anachronistic as those old Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias. For them, SUNO’s record of graduating only 17 percent of its four-year students within even six years — lower than the average of about 30 percent at all historically black colleges, 37 percent for black students at institutions of all types, and 59 percent for U.S. students overall — proves that the university systemically fails many of the nation’s most vulnerable students.
Supporters, on the other hand, maintain that historically black colleges, like urban schools serving predominantly low-income, nonwhite students, have been starved of resources and essentially set up to fail. State support for SUNO, for example, has declined by 41 percent in eight years.
As a result, the university has had to rely too much on adjunct and temporary faculty, said SUNO Chancellor Victor Ukpolo, while some classes have grown larger than he would like. Ukpolo said the slow pace of campus reconstruction after Katrina has been outside the university’s control because of the myriad state and federal agencies involved in allocating money for it.
Closures and mergers aren’t the only threat to historically black colleges, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. As all universities are forced to meet certain goals to qualify for continued state funding, she said, they could feel pressure to raise admissions standards.
While not everyone thinks that’s a bad thing, higher standards could prompt universities and colleges to stop accepting high school graduates with more marginal qualifications.
“In America, status is given to higher education institutions by who you keep out, not who you bring in,” said Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, a private historically black college in New Orleans.
There will always be a need — if not widespread appreciation — for historically black colleges that stay true to their original mission of serving the underserved, Kimbrough said.