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Last month, reporting from a drab hotel conference room in Washington, I witnessed something as bizarre as it was timely: Donald Trump, mired in a race-infused culture war of his own making, receiving repeated applause from a crowd of brown faces. He was heaping praise on the hundreds gathered there for his remarks at the National HBCU Week Conference.
“You have shaped American leaders, trained American legends, pioneered American innovations, empowered American workers, built American communities. And you’ve made all of America very proud of you,” he told the audience. His claim mid-speech that his team’s support for historically black colleges and universities has been “bigger and better and stronger than any previous administration, by far” was a characteristic exaggeration. But it is true that the White House has increased investment in HBCU programming by 14.3 percent.
It surprised many that he had even shown up. The annual conference is hosted by the White House, but presidents usually don’t attend. Whether this was pandering ahead of an election year or not, much of the general praise President Trump offered up was accurate: The legacy of HBCUs is in every thread of American life. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the author Alice Walker and the “Black Panther” lead actor Chadwick Boseman are just a few of their culturally impactful graduates. Although HBCUs 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, HBCUs have trained roughly 50 percent of black teachers.
They are also on the brink of disaster.
Rising college costs, the student loan crisis and federal budget cuts have broadly hamstrung higher education. But they’re killing HBCUs, 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 HBCU endowments taken together are now roughly 70 percent smaller than those of non-HBCUs. And private historically black colleges saw a 42 percent decline in federal funding between 2003 and 2015. HBCUs are awarding fewer doctorates now than they did in 1977, and a report found that the six-year graduation rates at 20 HBCUs stood at 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 HBCUs are facing existential threats and will need to be transformed, reinvigorated, to ensure that their futures are as vibrant as their pasts.
Things have changed several times over since 1837, when the first historically black college, Cheyney University, opened in Pennsylvania. The schools were created to allow black students to enter higher education when white educators — in the North, South and West — wouldn’t let them. A brilliant, brown intellectual ecosystem had emerged by the early 20th century: Ask alumni and they’ll tell you about the deep community, the lifelong friendships, the mentors who cared for them as if they were kin — all opportunities they believe they might not have had at predominantly white institutions. And so even after federal integration, HBCUs thrived.
As Walter Kimbrough, now president of Dillard University in New Orleans, explained in an interview with The Times in 2010, from 1984 to 1993 “historically black colleges and universities grew by 24.3 percent — 44 percent better than all of higher education.”
But that growth has reversed in some ways. In 1976, 18 percent of black college students were enrolled at HBCUs, but in 2010 only 9 percent were — a number that has barely budged since. 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 HBCU, 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. In this time of precarity, some HBCUs are getting crafty to stay afloat, using a grab bag of transformative shifts to boost enrollment, finances and the attractiveness of their curriculums.
Some schools have turned to crowdfunding. Bennett College, an all-women’s HBCU 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. But crowdfunding campaigns are a Band-Aid for wounds that needs surgery.
In 2017, after almost shuttering, Paul Quinn College in Texas, led by its president Michael Sorrell, turned the campus football field into a farm and the school into a work college, the first HBCU of that kind. Work colleges require residential students to do graded work — think helping to build a new dorm or answering phones in the admissions office — to offset the cost of tuition. It has worked so well for Paul Quinn that the school is looking to open a second site.
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.
There are hundreds of colleges that have low graduation rates and struggle financially, but the pain felt by HBCUs is concentrated within a specific minority community. And the HBCU cultural mission — enrolling and attempting to uplift students of color, including those of limited resources — is a noble but difficult business model.
Any school ultimately has three funding streams. Of those three, public sources (grants and federal, state and local appropriations) for HBCUs have been slashed, private investment is low, and HBCUs’ ability to raise tuition and fees — without either violating their core mission or suppressing the number of students who will even apply — is limited.
In Maryland, home to four public HBCUs, many predominantly white institutions have better-funded versions of programs offered at these neighboring HBCUs. The four of them viewed these programs as so similar to theirs that they sued the state over its being a direct attack on their ability to enroll more students. In September, Gov. Larry Hogan granted a $200 million settlement. But to put that in context, the University of Maryland at College Park — just one of those public “P.W.I.s” — received a private $215 million gift in 2017.
For HBCUs, alumni enthusiasm is high, but of the 46 HBCUs covered in a 2017 article by U.S. News & World Report, only 11 percent of alumni per school donated, on average.
Several Democratic presidential candidates have announced plans for billions more in HBCU investment. And the schools’ 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 HBCUs 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.
HBCUs’ survival, then, hinges on more than digging deeper into the government’s pockets. 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 HBCUs — explicitly encouraging students of other races to apply as well.
Even after the next big recession hits the American economy, some marquee HBCUs will still find ways to thrive. 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.
Editor’s Note: This story appears courtesy of The New York Times.
This story about historically black colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.