Historically Black colleges and universities once held a monopoly. Today, they struggle to compete with elite colleges that have stepped up recruiting for the best and brightest Black students. Howard admitted almost 60 percent of applicants last year; among current freshmen, the top 25 percent in SAT math and reading scored 1190 and up; 15 years ago the threshold was 1330.
Other uncomfortable realities include new restrictions on the federal loans that many students depend on (89 percent of Howard’s receive some sort of financial aid). Howard’s teaching hospital has also been a drain on resources; once the sole choice for middle-class patients in a segregated society, it is now used mostly by those who cannot afford to pay elsewhere. And the university has been hit with a downgrade of its credit rating by Moody’s Investor Service that makes fund-raising even more difficult.
Howard is not unique in the constellation of private and public H.B.C.U.’s, or even in the overall higher education community. Earlier this year, Moody’s put out a negative outlook on the entire higher education sector. But as the saying goes, when White America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia.
Howard, which sits on a sprawling 258-acre campus in Northwest Washington, has educated many of the civil rights leaders who fought to end segregation at White colleges and universities, among them Thurgood Marshall and Vernon Jordan Jr.
As a newly minted lawyer, Mr. Jordan worked on my successful case to desegregate the University of Georgia in 1961. (Now a Howard board member, he declined to be interviewed for this article.) In those days, the State of Georgia went so far as to pay Black graduate students to study in other states if no black institution in Georgia offered the courses they wanted to take. In my case, the University of Georgia had the only journalism school in the South — my dream was to be Brenda Starr, having read the exciting exploits of the comic strip character from an early age. Hamilton Holmes, who was also part of the lawsuit against the State of Georgia, had gone to Morehouse, the men’s H.B.C.U. in Atlanta, for almost two years before our victory. But the University of Georgia had more laboratory facilities than Morehouse, and Hamp, as he was known to his friends, wanted to be a doctor, so he chose Georgia.
The lawsuit made it possible for me and other students to pursue our dreams in places that had always been closed to African-Americans. Little did any of us realize the price many Black colleges would pay for equal opportunity. Take Fisk University, a leading Black college in Nashville that graduated an army of freedom fighters who risked their lives to bring about equality and change in the South, as well as the lead attorney in my case in Georgia, Constance Baker Motley. Enrollment reached a little over 1,500 in the ’70s. Today, Fisk has 645 students. And like other H.B.C.U.’s whose enrollments are 1,000 or less, the prognosis for survival is not good.
The economic issues that bedevil higher education in general are even more disruptive in the H.B.C.U. community, in part because many of the students are first in their families to go to college. Forty-six percent of students at historically Black colleges come from families with incomes lower than $34,000, and half qualify for federal low-income Pell grants, according to the United Negro College Fund, which finances scholarships for 37 private Black colleges. The organization also manages a Gates Foundation scholarship program that allows disadvantaged students to choose any institution. Only 19 percent of the recipients have chosen Black colleges. Many families have had to scurry for alternative financing, or had to leave their dreams behind altogether, after the Department of Education recently toughened eligibility criteria for Parent Plus loans. A coalition of Black organizations have protested what William R. Harvey, president of the historically Black Hampton University, called “a debacle.”
Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, has urged the department to return to the old loan policy and be more transparent and inclusive in any future process. At an H.B.C.U. conference in September, Education Secretary Arne Duncan explained that higher credit requirements were “designed to protect parents and taxpayers against unaffordable loans,” but apologized for poor communication about the changes, and promised to facilitate appeals. But damage has been done. Denials have led to some 17,000 fewer students attending Black colleges, costing the institutions more than $150 million in revenue, according to the United Negro College Fund. Howard lost 585 students, though about half were readmitted thanks to an intense fund-raising campaign.