The Higher Education System That Produces 90 Percent of Black Science and Tech Grads Is Going Under

The nation's historically black colleges and universities are facing serious financial difficulties and struggling to survive.

(Photo: Digital Vision/Getty Images)

May 29, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

Higher education has been billed as the single most important investment in the future, and the proof is in the pudding: University graduates earn nearly 50 percent more than people with just a high school diploma, and the unemployment rate for grads is 5.6 percent, lower than the national average. But while universities across the country engage in an arms race, complete with high-paid, rock-star professors and elaborate building projects that garner prestige—all while passing ballooning tuition costs on to students—historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are struggling to survive.

Bolstered by multibillion-dollar endowment funds, institutions such as Harvard, Columbia, Ohio State, Emory, and Stanford were able to ride out the recession. HBCUs, however, have watched both their investments and their federal funding decrease.

In our allegedly post-racial world it’s easy to wonder if we still need institutions that were founded at a time when colleges and universities refused to admit black students. While they make up just 4 percent of colleges in the U.S., the schools produce 21 percent of black graduates. Moreover, historically black colleges have educated 50 percent of black public school teachers and lawyers, 80 percent of black judges, and 90 percent of black STEM graduates.

With those kinds of stats, if these institutions disappeared it would be devastating for the black community and America as a whole. But that’s what may happen.

The problems for HBCUs start at the top, with the Obama administration. Since taking office, President Obama has opined on the virtues of college. In 2009 he told graduates of Moscow’s New Economic School that "the future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.” So it would seem that he’d want to support policies that help diverse populations on American soil thrive.

However, despite pledging nearly $1 billion in aid to HBCUs, the Obama administration instituted new PLUS loan guidelines in 2011 that made it more difficult for parents to be approved for loans. Many black families—who were disproportionately affected by the Great Recession—could no longer qualify for PLUS loans. The result? About 28,000 students were denied funding, amounting to a loss of approximately $150 million in revenue for HBCUs.

Hampton University president Dr. William Harvey, who also is chair of Obama’s HBCU Board of Advisors, said the change precipitated “the worst situation [he has] seen in 35 years.”

Amid threats of a lawsuit by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and complaints by HBCUs, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus last August indicating the Department of Education would revisit the strict PLUS loan lending guidelines while also making it easier for families to appeal the DOE’s loan decision.

Because HBCUs typically serve economically disadvantaged students, raising tuition or relying on alumni giving—two of the most popular ways universities have dealt with budget gaps—are almost always out of the question. The widening black-white wealth gap is not only felt in American communities but also evident in university endowment accounts.

In 2013, the top 10 historically white intuitions had a combined endowment of $154.7 billion, compared with $1.5 billion for the top 10 HBCUs. While Harvard enjoys a robust $32.3 billion fund, Howard University—the crown jewel of HBCUs, having educated the likes of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison—has an endowment of just $537 million.

Financial woes have taken their toll on HBCUs. Last year, a Howard trustee wrote a scathing letter predicting that "Howard will not be here in three years" if the university did not deal with its financial crisis. Last June, St. Paul’s, a 125-year-old liberal arts college in North Carolina, shut its doors. In 2004, Mary Holmes College in Mississippi closed amid declining enrollment and funds. Morris Brown College in Atlanta, whose population has dipped to 35 students, has been on the verge of collapse for the last decade.

Phillip L. Clay summed up the importance of HBCUs in a recent Ford Foundation report. “Members of the black middle class who are older owe much of their opportunity, regardless of their economic origins, to the presence and viability of HBCUs at a critical time,” Clay wrote. “While under-resourced, these institutions were often their only accessible pathway into the middle class, especially if they grew up in the South.”

That’s true today. If we’re going to meet Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, HBCUs have to remain a viable option for African American students. Otherwise, we can kiss that goal—and the dream of a diverse, well-trained workforce—good-bye.

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is collaborating with Samuel Goldwyn Films on the distribution of the documentary Ivory Tower.