HBCUs in Peril (?)

A view of Graves Hall at Morehouse College

It seems there’s no foreseeable end in sight to the bad news facing the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. 

Enrollment among college eligible Black students who attend HBCUs has dipped from 18.4 to 12.9 percent over the past thirty years plus, and since 2011, the schools have lost millions of dollars in funding due to the government’s admittedly poor explanation of revisions for the Parent Plus Loan program. This resulted in the denial of loans to tens of thousands of students’ parents over the past two years, as well as funds for students who had already been accepted.

Add to this further fiscal slashes to the nation’s overall educational institutions by Congress and the picture for the schools— responsible for producing 25 percent of the nation’s Black college graduates and most of the Black doctoral degree recipients per to the National Center for Education Statistics —grows even bleaker.

It’s not that the Obama Administration does not get the importance of saving the collectively sinking ship—the president has stated that the success of students attending the 105 institutions, most of them established at the close of the Civil War, is critical to meeting his 2020 education goal. 2020 is also the year Black and Latino children are expected to make up 50 percent of the nation’s students

But given the serious fiscal challenges facing this country—including a looming government shutdown, a proposed $40 billion cut to food stamps, the heavy costs of Obamacare and other challenges being weighed on Capitol Hill—no one seems to be able to answer how, when or can it be done. 

This includes Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education. “These are tough times, tough times,” said Duncan Wednesday during a meeting of African American journalists at the start of the annual National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week Conference. “There’s nothing I can do to mitigate the impact of sequestration,” he added, pointing to the looming five-percent cut in federal spending at the start of the government’s new fiscal year, which will likely cause HBCUs to potentially lose millions more.

Dr. George Cooper, newly appointed executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, doesn’t see any obvious solutions either. The best-case scenario, he said during the summit, is that unspecified federal agencies will lend a hand.

"Funding is a real challenge for public and private institutions,” said Cooper. “We can't manage their budgets, but I think the supplemental funds that are provided by federal agencies will help them.” No estimates yet as to how much money the hemorrhaging schools -- including the “Black Harvards” of the HBCU system, Howard and Morehouse -- could receive were provided. Both schools recently saw their credit rating downgraded to just above “junk” status due to enrollment issues and other challenges.

Still the Obama administration says it has already taken major several steps to get the vulnerable institutions back on track. Among them:

-$850 million is now going to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and $150 million to Predominately Black Institutions courtesy of the landmark Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act signed by the President in 2010.

-More than 220,000 African Americans are expected to benefit from enhancements to an income-based repayment program under the law by 2020, making loan payments more affordable for students with unmanageable debt. The Department of Education estimates that an additional 200,000 in Pell Grant awards will be made to Black students that year as well. 

-Under President Obama’s leadership, Pell Grant scholarships for students at HBCUs have grown by 53%— providing an additional $322 million to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

-Since taking office, the president has raised the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,635—a $905 increase since 2008. Under his leadership, the number of Pell Grant recipients has expanded by 50 percent. 

But as the Washington Post pointed out last year, the Administration can only do so much to offset decades of under-funding.

It looks as if, going forward, the HBCUs themselves—particularly those on the boards of trustees, the staff and faculty— will be under even greater pressure to help pick up the significant financial slack by exerting even more pressure on its alumni to give back.