Cash-Strapped HBCUs Seek a Lifeline

Historically black colleges and universities are turning to creative solutions to financial woes.

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When Grambling State University’s football team forfeited a game against Jackson State University last year, players thought they were locked in a singular battle with the administration. They presented administrators with a list of things they were fed up with, including a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to play against their competitors. Further, they complained about dilapidated and moldy athletic facilities and equipment, among other issues.

Turns out their complaints were emblematic of concerns at dozens of the nation’s HBCUs, said Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which provides scholarships for students at the schools. The financial woes come as the federal government and states across the nation have trimmed their HBCU budgets in recent years, he said.

“Grambling is emblematic of a bigger problem,” Taylor told The Root. “It’s not limited to athletics. Dorms have fallen into serious disrepair. Classrooms are in need of updating, and academic programs have suffered. Some schools have had to reduce faculty and staff. To be blunt, it’s the result of years and years of financial neglect. Some of these schools are in need of a major infusion of cash.”

Now, in 2014, officials like Taylor are focusing on solutions, including turning a fresh eye toward alumni for donations, working with banks such as Wells Fargo to help students and staff obtain scholarships and pushing forward with the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, part of the administration’s mission to make sure that America has the world’s highest percentage of college graduates by 2020.

The push comes as the schools have seen federal and state funding diminish. Grambling State, for example, has seen its funding cut 56 percent, from about $31 million six years ago to about $13 million this academic year, Will Sutton, a spokesman for the university, told The Root. As a result, the cost of deferred maintenance projects has hit about $65 million, he said, and that amount does not include desired construction projects. To underscore the problem, he points out that the university has 590 acres, scores of buildings and one plumber.

But in the aftermath of the bad publicity from the football forfeiture, Audrey Gilbreath, a 1979 Grambling State University graduate, donated $10,000 to the university foundation to contribute to a mass-communications scholarship, Sutton said.

“That’s huge for a school like ours,” Sutton said. “Some schools may not get excited about a mass-communications scholarship, but we’re grateful.” Overall, however, alumni donations at Grambling are less than 2 percent, which is about average at most HBCUs, Sutton said.

“Most of these schools were founded to educate the families of slaves,” he said. “And most of our relatives who had the opportunity to go to college did not have the opportunity to go to any college or university they wanted to until relatively recently. So when you start with people with limited economic status, it’s not like you are coming from a family of means and wealth. You are starting at a place where people are getting used to the idea of being able to give. And a lot of our giving is at church.”

To address the issue of alumni donations, Grambling gives its freshmen piggy banks and asks them to fill theirs with pocket change throughout their four years, Sutton said. When a bank is full, administrators ask students to take it to the development office, where it’s put into an account with their name as part of their graduating-class gift to the university.

Indeed, Taylor said, alumni could do more to help HBCUs, which have an estimated 2 million living graduates. He points to St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., which closed after 125 years in June 2013 after failing to raise an estimated $250,000 to remain open.