Will Cash-Strapped HBCUs Survive?

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

Courtesy of Dillard University
Courtesy of Dillard University

(The Root) — When Walter Kimbrough opted last July to helm 143-year-old Dillard University, his choice stumped friends and colleagues who knew some of what Dillard was up against. Compounding the costs of running the New Orleans campus is a $160 million federal loan for post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, a repayment that Kimbrough calculates could consume a quarter of Dillard’s overall budget within a decade.

“We’re lobbying the government to forgive the loan, wipe the slate clean,” said Kimbrough, previously president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., a campus founded expressly to educate former slaves. Kimbrough is credited with helping to orchestrate its revival.

Citing Dillard’s longstanding academic viability — its nursing program is Louisiana’s oldest, its digital media and film project draws collaborations with filmmaker Spike Lee and so forth — Kimbrough continued pressing the case for loan forgiveness during this year’s annual conference of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. That September confab draws HBCU presidents, lower-level administrators and players in Washington who control federal education policy and purse strings.

“This campus was six-feet underwater,” Kimbrough added. “The damage was catastrophic. If that [debt] goes away, we can start looking at so many options, putting money into academics and developing our top priorities in that area.”

The Perennial Problem

The subject of money — how to secure, allocate and steward it — has been a perennial concern of what officially are now 105 HBCUs. (At their peak in the 1940s, HBCUs numbered 240, though some approximated high schools, not more rigorous colleges.) The lingering recession has ramped up the urgency, some observers said. Cash shortfalls — sometimes resulting from lackluster leadership — factor into Tennessee State University historian Bobby Lovett’s projection that at least five more HBCUs will vanish within the next 10 years.

“A number will go under or be forced to consolidate or merge,” said Lovett, author of America’s Historically Black Colleges: A Narrative History 1837-2009. “Particularly some of the small schools will not be able to withstand the pressures of this ongoing recession, which has eroded the support of private donors and forced cutbacks in government aid. And no college can survive on tuition and fees alone, not in this economy.”

That’s a fact, said John Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative. Its four-pronged plan for bolstering HBCUs includes enlarging their pools of capital. Its campus-enrichment strategy aims to draw more international students to HBCUs; turn out more grads in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM sector); and more kindergarten through 12th-grade classroom teachers for many of the nation’s beleaguered public schools, from which a third of black students currently don’t graduate on time. The plan also aims to improve HBCU student retention and graduation rates. And it angles to enhance the public image of HBCUs, whose standout achievements — whether winning coveted NASA research grants or putting more blacks into medical school than non-HBCUs — sometimes are far outside the national spotlight.