Will Cash-Strapped HBCUs Survive?

Be it from the government, private sector or alumni, some schools need an intervention. And fast.

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While all alumni giving hovers around 14 percent nationally, the rate is roughly 9 percent at HBCUs. Spelman College, one of the top-tier HBCUs, has attained a rate of 40 percent as part of a protracted campaign. But that example is an exception more than the rule.

"We've not done a good job of putting people in the mindset of giving back," said Fayetteville State University trustee Terence Murchison, a Fayetteville alum who also attended elementary school on that North Carolina campus.

Relatively new to its board of trustees, he is among those pushing for the college to redouble its fundraising efforts. Fayetteville State this year hired a new vice president and an associate vice chair for its office of institutional advancement. It's launching a campaign to raise more than $12 million from private donors. "The point is that that should be our fifth capital campaign in the last 15 years, not our first," Murchison said. " … It just comes down to public institutions like ours, over the years, becoming very reliant on funding from the state and federal governments."

But state aid alone dropped from $80 million last year to $67 million this fiscal year. "Public institutions like ours are now struggling with how we can balance the equation, without losing faculty and staff, without overloading them with students, while still scheduling classes in such a way that students can continue to graduate on time," Murchison said. "How do we restructure ourselves so that we become a fundraising, money-raising organization?"

"That's the holy grail," Wilson said. Private, institutional donors are more likely to support colleges with strong alumni support.

Keeping Up With the Competition

Another particularly trenchant reality, Wilson said, is that roughly half of black college students are now enrolled at community and other two-year colleges or at for-profit, online universities. "The competition for finding and attaining and attracting the best students has really gotten stiff. More African Americans are entering higher education now," Wilson said. "And that's consistent with the fact that everybody's getting the message that if you want to be stable in this economy, you, at minimum, have to have an advanced degree."

If community and online colleges are becoming more of a magnet for black students, HBCUs will have to ratchet up their own appeal, adding more online courses and, in other ways, making sure they're competitive. "They will have to shift with the trends," Wilson said.

Those that don't will be hard-pressed to thrive. Already, two of the 105 campuses officially listed as HBCUs exist largely in name only: Shorter College in North Little Rock, Ark., which lost its accreditation in 1996, hasn't offered courses in its shuttered buildings for several years. Morris Brown College filed for bankruptcy in August 2012, hoping to stave off foreclosure.

There are other stories of struggle. Long-vaunted Fisk University in Nashville, which, among other strides, runs one of the nation's first medical schools to churn out legions of black doctors, has been in the red for years now. Earlier in 2012, it won a court order to sell off part of its enviable cache of fine art -- pieces by masters Elizabeth Catlett, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keefe and Henry O. Tanner -- in a bid to balance its books.