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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Courtesy of Dillard University

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.

That’s a notable reflection of the urgency of these days for some HBCUs.

Said Dillard’s Kimbrough: “If you look at the socioeconomics, this group of institutions, HBCUs, serves more poor students than any segment of [higher education] … That brings up the whole question of who gets the kind of education and kind of job that let’s them buy their first house. How are we going to close this wealth gap?

“We’ve got to stop rewarding those who don’t need the money anymore … If someone donated $40 million to Dillard’s endowment, we can use the interest alone on that to let poor kids go to school for free. After we get past this Katrina deal, that kind of donation is my first big wish.”

Katti Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer.

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