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Gifts and mementos from international students and visitors are displayed in the Office of International Affairs at Tennessee State University. Credit: Delece Smith-Barrow/The Hechinger Report

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.

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. 

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.

Related: HBCUs open their doors wider to international students

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.

In 1976, 18 percent of black college students were enrolled at HBCUs, but in 2010 only 9 percent were

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.

Related: Can ‘work colleges’ in cities become a low-cost, high-value model for the future?

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.

HBCUs are awarding fewer doctorates now than they did in 1977

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.

Related: Column: Don’t say there’s a lack of STEM talent in the South

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.

“You have shaped American leaders, trained American legends, pioneered American innovations, empowered American workers, built American communities.”

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.

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she spent a year studying how top-tier universities...

Letters to the Editor

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  1. Written by Ramona S. Jones

    Title: Moving the Black Community Beyond Education Toward Economic Empowerment

    With the latest upheavals on what black young people in urban communities have been exposed to during the recent racism pandemic (notwithstanding the years, decades, and centuries of intentional suppression and repression) one wonders if someone is going to ask the necessary question who is coming to save us? Seems like oppressed people and people who have been under attack have always waited for others to care enough to come and save them or join them in rising up to save themselves.

    Saved from what you might ask? In all the ways we as a black community cannot do for ourselves. That sounds a little insulting. My understanding as a parent is the path to full maturity is to leave dependent roles and rise to independent status. However we as the black community must recognize there are systems in place that balance these two extremes making it an individual decision on how comfortable we as individuals, families, and communities feel being dependent on other people, programs, and corporate and political systems.

    We must assert that many of us in the black community have moved beyond being challenged by caring for our basic needs of food, housing, clothing, yet not everyone around the nation especially living in deinvested communities without a plenteous amount of quality and stable jobs have the luxury of moving beyond the daily concern for those needs. Impoverished environments causes deep scars and even those black families who have escaped the physical remnants of those shackles through educational attainments, securing rewarding and financially-strong careers, and building legacy-focused businesses might still suffer from generational, unhealthy states that have warped our thinking and behaviors from deep-seeded trauma or over-corrections. Just maybe when we as black individuals, I will not dare lump all of us in one category, get decent jobs we overindulge in providing for our basic needs like spending an enormous amount of money on clothing and spending money on our luxury cars as an extreme overreaction signaling that our value systems are screaming ‘I’m good. I have arrived with my basic needs” as our investment portfolios scream “a fool and his money soon part.”

    Here’s one for you: If your thoughts and decisions are always filled with ensuring your basic needs are met, your capacity to move higher on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is stunted. My point is we will always be positioned in a state for governmental assistance when we rest on levels one and two in the hierarchy and not hedge our families and communities beyond having exposures in our basic human needs and security needs. With several of our black families without two high-functioning, economically-secure parents, black children are observant of the struggles, programs, and systems that are propped up to meet these lower level needs. Last point on this, when we pursue governmental involvement on these same lower levels and our activism are held to these aims we will receive only on these lower levels. Without going into depth about the unsettling economic displacement of the COVID-19 pandemic, the obvious exposure and inadequacy of our jobs and even certain businesses to secure our economic lives is unsettling.
    Even in this pandemic disturbance, there are economically-secure families and communities that are elevated beyond the common conditions of the black community enabling them to shut the doors in their palaces which are preserved by their wealth. Something to think about as our young people seek out careers and businesses to start their lives.

    To ensure our black families and black communities are not depicted as the images of individuals and families standing on the roofs as seen from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the black communities around the nation has to do a better job at mapping out its journey toward empowerment.

    Even with these observations there still remains a pertinent question. How can we as the black community unburden itself, take back our own independence, and rise up and save ourselves? Will Education be the answer? Will increased community programs? Of course, it must be better jobs. No wait, more money will make the black community increase its vitality as a whole and all the deficits and major areas that we find ourselves coming in last as a race magically will be resolved.

    If you notice, the areas I have pointed out are primary rallying points for political leaders wanting the black vote, even black politicians. Are these areas necessary to solving and unlocking stagnation? Of course they are. However there remains a synergized approach and a prevalent idea that if not emphasized and made a primary target to energize and elevate the black community, we continue to be “dependent” in ways we were never destined.

    I believe the central core for the black community is the need to be self-supporting sustained by the root and priorities of entrepreneurship trusting in one another to rise to become excellent on all fronts. Sounds simplistic doesn’t it? I am not speaking about a few black individuals creating some businesses that forever stand in the lines needing more capital infusion. I am speaking about the very essence of entrepreneurship bred in us from birth where every progressive, maturing step moves us into the position we were born to obtain. As much as a black baby gets a social security number that same baby is cultivated to be a strong, independent, caring, powerful, strategic, brilliant leader creating a future that validates the high calling on their lives.

    This is why in my organization DREAMbuilders Youth Mentoring Network (www.dreambuilders4life.org) we teach, preach, and “shout from the rooftops” that “Education Must Meet Economic Empowerment.” The only way to be FREE is to OWN. The only way to OWN is to use your MIND to CREATE and EXECUTE what you SEE on the INSIDE and make the EXTERNAL the REALITY of what you Inner-vision. We must ENVISION the black community as one of the greatest communities not the least. No longer do we STAND and WAIT in bread lines. We do not clamour at the handouts of affordable housing to stay there for generations limiting our family wealth so we cannot pass our wealth to the next wise stewards in our lineage settling for the “bread crumbs” delivered to us by helpful hands shackling us to impoverished lives which restrict our economic prowess. These are systems devised to control our migration and journey toward self-sufficiency leading to collective impact for the black community. If too many of our brilliant families are stuck at the rungs of dependence, then they will not strive for independence. If they do not arrive at independence, then they will forever be too threatened by the existence of other brilliant people to succeed at interdependence.

    Let’s consider the opportunity of the black communities around the nation thriving as “interdependent, connected” organizations. It would mandate that we do not settle on NETWORKING when the higher rung in the business relationship is COLLABORATION. I do not want your business card. I want your trust and your confidence that my products and services can meet your need and visa versa. We are worthy of the inherited place and the sanctity of our black royal people deserve better than a few crumbs. We must teach ourselves and our children “We do not WAIT; we ACTIVATE.” There is always something to ACHIEVE toward the VISION, but first you have to have a VISION and you cannot keep abandoning your post.

    I read a brilliant San Diego document years ago called the Black Agenda prescribing a five-point foundational framework to plan out a strategic needs assessment and plan for the black community in San Diego. The core brilliant team started but did not finish. Why do you ask? I wasn’t one of them. I cannot completely provide those details, but I can say this, wherever there is VISION there must be PROVISION. Capital accumulation, sustainability, and succession planning has to be foundational areas of strength that is built in any managed effort at the beginning.

    I began this editorial with two central questions. Who is coming to save us? Also, how can we as the black community unburden itself, take back our own independence, and rise up and save ourselves? First, life is indigenous and its source comes from within; therefore, there is nothing EXTERNAL that has the POWER to UNLOCK what is created from WITHIN. This is why our “External Saviors” are always willing to provide external remedies: food, affordable housing, community programs, low-income services. etc. These are essential. We are thankful. When you are in NEED you have to be thankful to the helpfulness of your rescuers, but at some point the rescued become the rescuers CAPABLE, QUALIFIED, and POSITIONED to Develop a Vision for their community and EXECUTE.

    The singular most powerful tool to SAVE the black community that can be trusted is the “Mindset” to do it for ourselves by ourselves. In DREAMbuilders, we call this the Driven 2 Win Winning Mindset. It is where you drive on the Five Pathways to Achieve Your DREAMS: See It! Believe It! Speak It! Be(Come) It! Receive It! The second elevation of thought is when you Move Your DREAMS into Action by following the progression of: “I Can. I Will. I Am.” The third elevation of thought is ‘Believing in the DREAM’ which is expressed by understanding: “I Have what I say. I Say what I Have. I Believe what I say.” The last elevation of thought is ‘Fueling Your DREAMS with V-M-G-A-S. Vision-Mission-Goals-Actions-Strategies. Develop the Vision. Define the Mission. Determine the Goals. Decide the Actions. Decipher the Strategies.

    WE CAN TRUST IN THAT. The Driven 2 Win Winning Mindset will SAVE us. If we OWN it; we CONTROL it. DREAMbuilders students and families understand the most powerful seat is the “Driver’s Seat.” We are not Passengers. We are not driven off course to our vision by subsidies and stimulus instruments. We take back our rights and privileges to defend our communities against self-indulged managers that enrich themselves off of our mismanagement and lack of vision.

    How can we as the black community unburden itself, take back our own independence, and rise up and save ourselves? The phrase “Build it and they will come” comes to mind. Let’s stop building families, campaigns, organizations without the commitment to complete the vision. Let’s create a multigenerational plan of action and manage it incrementally celebrating our milestone achievements. Our black children need this type of on-the-ground leadership. We need fathers who will love their wives and keep the vision of togetherness infront of their children not wayward extremes that erode morality and wisdom. Our black children need to live in communities that have more to offer than a low-paying job; they need an opportunity, a socioeconomic one. Instead of rushing to give our black children a half-baked commitment to an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) let’s raise the bar by introducing every black student to a personal performance plan connected with an economic trust fund which will incentivize them on a path to succeed and accomplish their goals just like Corporate America does its promising employees.

    There is a structure I learned called the socioecological model. It starts with Individual, Groups, Institutions, Community Engagement, Policy/Systems. Programs are good, but systems are better. Systems are pathways to move forward. Extending the driving analogy in the “Driven 2 Win” concept, we must create “connected roads and pathways” that lead us forward as a black community. We have been held back purposely and repressed by individual minds, programs, and even policies as a whole community because of a singular belief system that “We are powerful.”

    Consider the cumulative effort and strategies that have taken place for 400 years to suppress what to the naked eye might not be obvious, but to the oppressors is truly a threat. It is now time to RISE, but as we RISE we must leave the mindsets and divisive controls that created the snares for our black people in the first place. We cannot dishonor ourselves by devaluing one another and believing ourselves to be greater than anyone else. We cannot be moved by greed that we do not live honorable lives and build compromised family units. No more one-dimensional strategies not connected to the overall vision. Let’s stop measuring our capabilities by getting our black students to college without enriching them economically through investment and wealth-building endeavors hoping the same institutions who restricted the parents will somehow hire, train, and promote your sons and daughters who look like us. We as a black community do not have the luxury of waiting another 400 years to be embraced by all. Personally, I do not want to train any black students to “wait at the bus stop” until they are picked up waiting on others to create jobs and formulate policies that include us. I would rather support our personal and professional growth through the mission to “educate, equip, and empower” incorporating economic and wealth-building prowess. Personally, if my success is relegated or held up by waiting on others to embrace and love my black brilliance I might be waiting another 400 years. When we stack the deck for our black children to make it economically in the world based on their creativity, diligence, and self-love, then they cannot be dominated, but they will become “drivers” of their own futures guided by the principles of ownership, stewardship, and integrity.

    I have a Vision for myself, my family, and my community and all of us are important. The roadmap for success must be interwoven with plans and strategies that incorporate a culture or a way of being that builds our community not tears it down. This is why it is fundamental that our planning comes before birth. We must stop the erosion in our black families. Every black child is important. I must be my brother’s keeper, but my role is not to cripple him with dependencies, but empower him through teaching him the proponents contained in the Driven 2 Win Winning Mindset so we are invigorated to RISE. WE ARE LOOKING FORWARD, but we as a black community must consider the past also. Even the generations we left behind need to be in the plan of renewed vision.

    WE ARE OUR OWN SOLUTION. The secret has always been WITHIN. The Moses we seek lives inside ourselves. We must grow into WHO WE ARE!!! Loving the essence of our people is what is our cure. When I love your Success as if it was my OWN, then black people will know we have ARRIVED.

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