Will Cash-Strapped HBCUs Survive?

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.


Broadly, Wilson said, "We're pushing a message of urgency. There is an urgent need to strengthen these institutions now. That's a message we have not just for government, for federal agencies, but it's a message we have to the private sector, even and especially HBCU alumni."

Finding the Funds

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.

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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