Should This HBCU Be Saved?

Illustration for article titled Should This HBCU Be Saved?

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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KNOXVILLE COLLEGE: Financial and accreditation challenges.

Knoxville College in Tennessee is trying to raise $7 million to get out of pressing debt. In December, the accrediting agency that reviews colleges placed Alabama A&M University on probation and continued probation for Texas Southern University because of financial problems at the schools.

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PAUL QUINN COLLEGE: Eliminating some classes.

Paul Quinn College in Dallas is at risk of losing its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, partly because of problems with its financial stability and resources. A revival to benefit the college, which is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is set for the week after Easter. College president Michael J. Sorrell, in a letter at the beginning of the current semester, told students some classes with low enrollment had been eliminated, and other steps were taken to make the institution more efficient. The changes were necessary because of an upcoming accreditation review in June and because of the downturn in the economy.

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SPELMAN COLLEGE: Losing students over winter break.

Spelman College in Atlanta—one of the wealthiest HBCUs with an endowment valued at $340 million in 2007, according to the college’s Fact Book—announced an anticipated 4.8 percent budget deficit next year. The prestigious college is eliminating 35 positions, including six faculty slots in its restructured education department.

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MOREHOUSE COLLEGE: Plunging endowment.

Morehouse College in Atlanta has historically had an impressive endowment. But like most universities, its endowment is down and so is enrollment, college president Robert Franklin told the Associated Press in an interview last month. Enrollment has dropped by 8 percent compared to last year, and the endowment is down to $110 million from a high of $150 million.

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This article contains corrected and updated information about layoffs and enrollment at  Spelman College.

Denise Stewart is a veteran freelance writer and editor living in Alabama.

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