Should This HBCU Be Saved?

Morris Brown could barely pay its water bill. Endowments are down at Spelman and Morehouse. Passing a collection plate might not keep some historically black colleges afloat.

Screening of "The Princess Of Mount Ledang"

The water is still on at Morris Brown College in Atlanta. At the very last minute, the 128-year-old historically black college came up with the money to pay its past due water bill of $64,887.32 in March.

The historically black college was able to tap its proud history. The school reached out to alumni, churches and other supporters to raise $40,000 toward the overdue bill that once topped $300,000. Last month, students, teachers, alumni and others took to the streets and to the phones to raise $150,000 to prevent water services from being cut.

Morris Brown, founded in 1881 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, has been living in recent months, and yes, recent years, on miracles.

The school’s struggle for survival mirrors the critical financial condition many of the nation’s HBCUs are facing—prompting some uncomfortable questions. Are they taking care of their business? Who is minding the store? And perhaps the prickliest, one that has become more pressing and credible in recent years: Are HBCUs still needed?

What’s clear is the students at HBCUs are already vulnerable in this economy. A majority of HBCU students, about 80 percent, receive some form of financial aid, Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania expert on HBCUs, told NPR in a recent interview. Many receive Pell Grants to cover part of their expenses and must rely on loans to cover the rest of their costs. But in the current economic climate, it is more difficult for many students and their families to qualify for those loans.

At the same time, the economic downturn means black colleges are seeing the value of their endowments plunge, leaving them less money to help students in need. William “Sonny” Walker, vice chairman of the Morris Brown Board of Trustees, said HBCUs also lack crucial funding streams that keep many larger, non-black colleges and universities afloat.

“Many of the majority colleges are research institutions, and there is a lot of money connected to research. Also many of them are tied to foundations for funding,” he said. “HBCUs don’t have enough supporters who place contributing to them at the top of their giving list. If it were not for the support of several white corporations, the [United Negro College Fund] would struggle.”

Morris Brown doesn’t have a savings account or an endowment. All it has is buildings and land, sitting at the edge of the Atlanta University Center. Just two weeks ago, one of those buildings—Jordan Hall—was sold for $900,000 in an auction on the steps of the Fulton County Courthouse after the school defaulted on payments on a bond, for which the building had been used as collateral.

For now, the lofty philosophical question about the mission and need for HBCUs are colliding against cold, hard balance sheets. Here is a snapshot of recent woes at other HBCUs.