Denist Stewart’s piece in THE ROOT today describes the truly difficult and ungainly process of raising coin that is going on at historically black colleges and universities nationwide. Though schools in general, and HBCUs in particular—which tend to have a higher percentage of students on financial aid and suddenly hard-to-obtain loans—are being ravaged by the economic downturn, Morris Brown, based in Atlanta, seems to be the hardest-hit:
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.
Lay aside the question of what objective social value HBCUs provide for a second. It’s certainly a big deal that 200 students at Spelman College didn’t return for second semester in January, and that others across the country may not be able to afford their education come fall. I’ve always though it was particularly cruel that student loans—seemingly a surer investment in the US economy than, say, a (newly-refinanceable) subprime mortgage—are the only kind that one cannot default on. And the wave of teacher layoffs at these schools are another huge problem for black community development.
The NEW YORK TIMES recently catalogued how, this spring, college administrators are employing a mind-bending calculus to decide whether to admit more students than usual, fewer students so as not to extend their financial exposure, or admit the same number of high school seniors and hope for the best. But the HBCUs are in particularly dire straits. Why?
As a matter of policy discussion, I decided I'd like to see comparable statistics for a small college in a middle-income state (Georgia, to stay with Morris Brown example, is 23rd out of 50 states nationally for income) that attracts a predominantly white student body. Just as a test, I checked out Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas—Mike Huckabee’s alma mater. The “private Christian university” draws from a less advantaged income pool than Morris Brown (Arkansas is 48th), but is as white bread as it gets.* So I called over to see if they had to resort to any of the drastic measures that Morris Brown, Knoxville College, or Paul Collins University has had to take. Here’s what I got, from Trennis Henderson, Vice President for Communications at Ouachita:
At this point we are continuing to budget for the same number of students with the anticipation that if our enrollment numbers continue to increase as [they] did last year that would just help strengthen the bottom line financially. But we are seeking to take a conservative approach to budget just in light of the economic downturn. We did recently announce some staff position cuts but in the midst of that we also emphasized that no faculty positions were being eliminated. Other than just ongoing current projects, we do have a major construction project underway—a new student village that will house 500 plus students…”
He went on, but that's the basic picture. Ouachita is slightly more than half the size of Morris Brown—and from a poorer state—but is making do in these dire times. I hesitate to make comparisons to relative levels of wealth-building in black and white communities, what does all this mean?
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*UPDATE: Trennis Henderson, the Ouachita representative with whom I spoke today, emails THE ROOT with a valid complaint: Ouachita does have black representation—7 percent—which is more black students than Morris Brown has white students. I shouldn't have called it "as white bread as it gets"; that's a title better reserved for a school that has far fewer blacks, or by other means discourages minorities from applying. So it's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison when it comes to racial makeup. Rather, the private and specific mission (a "Christian university") of Ouachita is a more relevant metric for comparison. These two cases are a good jumping off point for discussion. —DO
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.