Higher education

Black colleges struggle with tight budgets, declining resources


The Hechinger Report

– 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’s had her share of disappointments.

The public university 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 that Hurricane Katrina damaged eight years ago, including the library, have yet to be fully repaired. In a student lounge where Stewart sometimes hangs out, 20-year-old encyclopedias are made available as study aids.

Stewart doesn’t regret enrolling at SUNO, and she said she appreciated 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.”

The university’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 that even their supporters agree that some of them will lose.

“I do predict several HBCUs will close,” said Jarrett Carter, the editor of the blog HBCU Digest, referring to the schools known as historically black colleges and universities. “It’s not a question of if, but when.”

These institutions are among the most vulnerable of the universities and colleges of all types beset by financial woes. As a group they suffer disproportionately from small endowments, subpar facilities and underprepared students. With lower graduation rates, on average, they’d be particularly vulnerable under President Barack Obama’s proposal to financially punish the colleges and universities that graduate the fewest students.

In Florida, the state’s four black colleges seem comparably stable but enrollment and graduation statistics are a mixed bag. Enrollment at Florida A&M University and Jacksonville's Edward Waters College has dipped slightly since 2000, while Daytona Beach's Bethune-Cookman University bucked the national trend and grew substantially. In 2000, Bethune-Cookman enrolled 2,745 students. By 2012, that number had swelled to 3543.

South Florida's only historically black college, Florida Memorial University, has suffered the steepest enrollment drops. The school's 2012 enrollment of 1,579 represents about a 20 percent decline from 2000.

In graduation rates, however, Florida Memorial does the best out of Florida's black colleges. About 41 percent of Florida Memorial students pursuing a bachelor's degree graduate within six years. At Florida A&M, that number is 40 percent, The other two schools perform much worse in graduation rates: Bethune-Cookman's rate is 24 percent, while Edward Waters College is last among Florida HBCU's at 23 percent.

Florida A&M — a public university that is part of the 12-school state university system — is by far the biggest black college in the Sunshine State. Florida A&M enrolls 12,057 students, which is down only slightly from the 12,126 who attended in 2000.

But two years ago, A&M was in the spotlight for a national hazing scandal involving its famed marching band/ Drum major Robert Champion died after being band mates used fists, feet and even sticks to beat Champion into unconsciousness during a bus ride. The death was ruled a homicide, and more than a dozen band members were charged with manslaughter and felony hazing. The widely-publicized case prompted FAMU's president to resign, and the university adopted new policies and procedures designed to discourage hazing going forward.

After a two-year suspension, FAMU's "Marching 100" band finally returned to the football field in September.

Nationally, even the most elite black colleges are struggling financially: Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Howard University’s credit rating in September and Morehouse College eliminated 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, these schools face increased competition not only from traditional colleges and universities, but also from for-profit and online institutions.

Officials in North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia have proposed or hinted at merging historically black colleges into predominantly white institutions nearby. 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 in Louisiana, the football team boycotted a game in protest. And 125-year-old Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., closed this summer after being stripped of its accreditation.

Women’s colleges have also been hard hit over the last half century, with the numbers dropping from 300 or so in 1960 to about 45 today. In comparison, the number of black colleges has dipped only modestly over the same period, from around 120 to 105 – in part because they have strong political support from the black middle class in places such as New Orleans.

When Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed two years ago that SUNO be merged with the University of New Orleans, for instance, civil rights groups rose to defend it, crediting the school with lifting scores of black New Orleanians out of poverty into the middle class.

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 might feel pressure to raise admissions standards.

While not everyone thinks that’s a bad thing, higher standards might 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.

The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Miami Herald Staff Writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this story.

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