Historically black colleges face challenges, but seeing more interest amid racial tensions

Seniors Taylor Payne, 23, left, Brian Gonzalez, 22, and Ruben Sanchez, 23, right, exit the library at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens.
Seniors Taylor Payne, 23, left, Brian Gonzalez, 22, and Ruben Sanchez, 23, right, exit the library at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens.

From humble beginnings as high schools and religious institutes, historically black colleges and universities have stood as a solid fixture in American higher education for more than a century.

Their graduates have become icons in social justice, politics, literature and the arts: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, and Toni Morrison, among others. The schools also provide a well-traveled path to top law schools, medical schools and graduate programs.

But as the distance from those humble beginnings deepens, many of the schools are looking to remain relevant, financially stable and stay open. Two schools have closed in the last four years, and many HBCUs are facing declining enrollments and state budget cutbacks.

“They’re going to have to work really hard to convince people of what HBCUs have to offer,” said Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education who leads the school’s center on minority-serving institutions. “Anytime an institution’s enrollments are not high, you have to go out of your way to show people why they should come.”

Some HBCU presidents, like Walter Kimbrough of Dillard University in Louisiana, think racial tensions in recent years at universities like Missouri, Harvard and Yale have led more black students to consider HBCUs. In a column in the Washington Post, Kimbrough noted that enrollments are up at several schools across the country.

“Simply put, as we see young black people chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the streets, their actions clearly indicate that black colleges matter as well,” Kimbrough wrote.

For the four historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Florida—Florida A&M in Tallahassee, Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens, Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and Edward Waters College in Jacksonville—the challenges center on finding financial support.

Yolanda Cash Jackson is a shareholder with Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale and heads up the firm’s lobbying efforts in Tallahassee. She’s worked with HBCUs for years and said Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron and politicians up and down the state are looking closely at the four schools.

“Going forward we have to make sure that we have good graduation rates and that the students are employed — not just employable,” Jackson said. “What [the schools] have learned to do … is to basically sell what the elected officials and the community are buying.”

Humble origins

Florida’s HBCUs were established in the late 19th and 20th centuries as the sole college options for thousands of black students.

The oldest of the four, Edward Waters, was established in 1866 as the Brown Theological Institute and then closed for most of the 1870s due to financial issues. The school eventually reopened as a high school in 1883 and later became Edward Waters College in 1892. The school lost its accreditation in 2004 after it plagiarized portions of another school’s accreditation application. Its status was eventually reinstated in 2006.

Florida Memorial College started as a combination of the Florida Baptist Institute, founded in Live Oak in 1879, and the Florida Baptist Academy, founded in Jacksonville 1892. The schools merged in 1941; the school moved to South Florida in 1968 and became Florida Memorial University in 2004.

Florida A&M was initially established in 1887 as the State Normal College for Colored Students. It became the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes in 1909 and adopted its current name in 1953. In 2011, the school faced national scrutiny after the death of marching band drum major Robert Champion after a hazing incident.

Mary McLeod Bethune founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. in 1904. Over time, that school would become Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

During the Civil Rights era, alumni said they faced threats and attacks from the Ku Klux Klan as they attempted to join sit-ins and marches.

“They would yell obscenities to us; they would throw all kinds of things at us, rocks, bottles — it didn't matter,” Florida Memorial alumna Cynthia Clark said at a 2014 Founders’ Day event.

Staying alive

Financial adversity has been a strain for the Florida schools at certain points in their histories. When Florida Memorial president Roslyn Clark Artis first took over in 2013, in an interim role, the school faced a $3 million budget deficit that was reduced through layoffs, salary freezes and other efforts.

Nationally, Saint Paul’s College in Virginia and the Lewis School of Business in Michigan closed in 2013, while South Carolina State fought to keep accreditation while facing millions in debt. Morris Brown College in Atlanta is trying to reemerge after losing accreditation and federal funding.

Gasman, at the University of Pennsylvania, said solid leadership from college presidents will be key for HBCUs.

“Leadership that is not only focused on strengthening academics but also has a business plan and is focused on making sure enrollments are high,” Gasman said. “It’s important that they take care of faculty and that they are really aware of the changing needs in the 21st century and they’re not just tied to the past.”

Jackson, of Becker & Poliakoff, said the fact that Florida’s HBCUs are afloat and in good standing is an accomplishment.

“How do they measure up? Guess what? They’re still open,” Jackson said.

Florida A&M has the highest enrollment of the four Florida HBCUs with more than 9,600 full-time students. But that’s down from more than 12,000 in 2012. Bethune-Cookman has about 4,000 students, up by about 500 students from 2012. Florida Memorial has about 1,400, while Edward Waters has nearly 1,000 students. Both are down slightly since 2012.

Nationally, HBCU enrollment has dropped from a peak of about 326,000 students in 2010 to about 294,000 students in 2014, according to the National Center for Education Studies. In a 2017 ranking of HBCUs by U.S. News & World Report, Florida A&M was the highest-ranked HBCU in the state, placing seventh out of 49 schools nationwide. Bethune-Cookman and Florida Memorial were ranked 24th and 37th, respectively. Edward Waters was not ranked.

A new administration

In the past month, HBCUs have seen renewed attention. Multiple reports indicate the Trump administration plans to an issue an executive order related to HBCUs, but scant details have been released. When asked about the order at a recent press conference, Trump said it “will be very good for everybody concerned.”

Artis, Florida Memorial’s president, acknowledged the renewed interest: “Whatever the genesis of the sudden interest in HBCUs, we welcome the conversation.”

The increased interest in part, may have to do with concerns some black students and their families have over safety. In recent months, there have been numerous reports of black students facing attacks, racial slurs and blackface confrontations on campus.

Gasman said many black students see the HBCUs as a sort of safe space.

At Florida Memorial, Artis said smaller class sizes and more faculty involvement are often a draw for students: “The point of distinction is that for every student, a large environment is not conducive to their learning experience.”

Looking to the future

Many of the students are first-generation college students, often from low-income households. State and national funding is based on steady graduation rates, enrollment numbers and indications that graduates are finding work.

Jackson said the chances of an HBCU student getting through school in four to six years can be greatly affected if family financial support dries up.

“These students don’t drop out. They stop out because momma can’t send money this month,” Jackson said.

According to a United Negro College Fund study, based on 2013 numbers, 80 percent of HBCU students borrow federal loans, compared with 55 percent of non-HBCU students. HBCU graduates also borrow more — about $26,000, compared with about $15,000 for non-HBCU graduates. About 25 percent of HBCU grads borrow more than $40,000.

Thus, schools like Florida Memorial and Florida A&M highlight academic programs that can lead to jobs. Florida Memorial boasts of its aviation program, which trains students for careers as pilots and air traffic controllers. FAMU takes pride in its law and nursing programs.

Edward Waters established a partnership with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in 2014, which allows criminal justice majors to work directly with law enforcement. Bethune-Cookman also has emphasized criminal justice.

And as more graduates come of out of these programs, they add to the national workforce and a rising black middle class, Artis said. A 2015 Gallup study, of about 55,000 graduates of HBCUs and non-HBCUS, indicated about 40 percent of the black HBCU graduates felt like they were financially thriving, compared with 29 percent of black non-HBCU graduates.

Said Jackson: “These are important institutions because they help African-Americans pursue the American dream.”

Miami Herald staff writer Kyra Gurney contributed to this story.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3

The enrollment picture

Student enrollment at Florida’s four historically black colleges and universities has dropped over the past five years, except at Bethune-Cookman University, which has seen an increase since 2012. Nationally, enrollment has fallen from 2012 to 2014, according to the latest data available.


Fall ’12

Fall ’13

Fall ’14

Fall ’15

Fall ’16

Bethune-Cookman University






Edward Waters College






Florida A&M University






Florida Memorial University










Source: The National Center for Education Statistics