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Enrollment declines threaten future of HBCUs, disheartening alumni

The 101 black colleges and universities in the U.S. had their second-lowest student totals in 17 years in the 2018-19 school year.
Image: Students sit outside Flora B. Curtis Hall at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Students sit outside Flora B. Curtis Hall at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla.Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images file

Darrell Dial entered South Carolina State University in 1987 as a “country boy,” a bit unsure of himself, and graduated with a degree in biology four years later as a man ready to take on the world.

He attributes his development to his experience at the historically black university in Orangeburg, South Carolina — the curriculum but mostly the reassuring, nurturing environment.

“It was a melting pot of high intelligence and backgrounds,” said Dial, 51, a molecular genomics scientist who lives in Atlanta. “This black diversity made a great playground for great debate and banter. It was truly iron sharpening iron for us all. I wouldn’t be the man I am if it weren’t for South Carolina State.”

South Carolina State University graduate Darrell Dial.Courtesy Darrell Dial

Dial’s experience and sentiments mirror thousands of graduates of historically black colleges and universities at a time when HBCUs are experiencing an alarming drop in enrollment, to the second-lowest rate last year in 17 years, according to a new report.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, more than 6,000 fewer students attended the 101 black colleges and universities in the U.S. during the 2018-19 school year. The 291,767 total was down from the 298,134 in the previous year, and was the lowest total since 2001, when there were 289,985 students at historically black colleges.

HBCUs provided black students an opportunity for a higher education when mainstream colleges were segregated. Cheyney University, founded in 1837 as Cheyney State College, was the first historically black college. Today, it is in financial disrepair and on the verge of collapse, having lost 38 percent of its student body in 2018. Enrollment at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, dropped 20 percent, and its president, Brent Chrite, sent a letter to alumni on Jan. 27 that told of its precarious situation.

“2020 will be a pivotal year in history of B-CU,” Chrite wrote. “It will be the year our beloved university prepared to close its doors, or it will be the year we turned a corner and began moving toward an exciting future.”

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges has required that BC-U wipe out its $8 million operating deficit before submitting its re-accreditation application this month. If accreditation is revoked, B-CU would lose access to most of its more than $7 million in federal funding.

“We cannot survive as a university without it,” Chrite wrote.

Bethune-Cookman’s plight is one of several cases of HBCUs in survival mode.

Retired Army colonel Ronnie Bagley.Courtesy Ronnie Bagley

“There is a distinct possibility that a number of HBCUs could cease to exist in 20 years or so,” said Ronnie Bagley, a retired Army colonel who graduated from Norfolk State University in 1983. “If that were to occur, many low income, first generation students will lose out on an opportunity for a college education.

“That’s scary because HBCUs have been the bedrock of producing some of the most successful and influential contributors in all facets of society, including business, government, military, arts and entertainment. You name it.”

The NCES study does not explain the drop in HBCU enrollment, but there are indications of multiple factors:

  • HBCUs lost $50 million when the Department of Education made it more difficult to acquire the PLUS Loan that many schools relied on, according to The Edvocate, which researches educational trends, issues and futures.

  • HBCU retention rates—keeping students in school year after year—are lower than predominantly white institutions. A U.S. News study indicates Spelman College leads HBCUs with an 88 percent retention rate, but many other schools drop as low as 50 percent because of financial issues and schools’ inadequate inducements for students to continue their education.

  • The explosive appeal of online colleges like DeVry and the University of Phoenix has hit HBCUs hard, according to The Edvocate. HBCUs had been considered a prime place for challenged or “underdog” students, but online options are trending because they are less expensive. Compounding matters, most HBCUs have not implemented thorough online classes or degree programs.

  • Investment in some campuses and facilities, like at Norfolk State and North Carolina A&T, has been impressive. But the lack of contemporary technology and building upkeep at many HBCUs — like at Tennessee State, where enrollment has dipped for 10 straight years — has turned away black students.

Added Bagley: “In many cases predominantly white institutions are looking to become more diverse by offering minorities scholarships. While I wanted my children to follow in my footsteps and attend an HBCU, preferably my alma mater, the HBCUs we visited couldn’t offer the kind of money the University of Kentucky did.”

Radiologist Elaine Brown.Courtesy Elaine Brown

Elaine Brown, a radiologist in San Antonio, turned down a full scholarship to the University of Louisville’s Medical School to attend Meharry Medical College, the HBCU in Nashville renowned for producing black doctors. She had attended historically black Fisk University in Nashville, was crowned Miss Fisk and felt an iron-clad connection to that experience.

“My parents thought I was crazy,” she said. “But it was not just about the education, but the social aspect as well. When I’m with HBCU alums and others who did not attend an HBCU, they don’t understand the effervescence we have when talking about our experiences. ... I visited Fisk during my senior year of high school and I never looked back. It was a loving, nurturing, safe space. Sadly, a lot of young people perceive that there is more opportunity and promise at larger institutions.”

All of these factors concern HBCU alums.

“It’s scary because I know how the black college experience elevates you as a person, helps you secure your identity,” said Jacobi Eaves, a 2009 graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, which then cost $160,000 over his four years. “A big reason for the downturn has to be about the cost of tuition. It continues to rise, and students leave college in debt. There has to be student loan forgiveness.”

1988 Spelman College graduate from Detroit Flecia Brown.Courtesy Flecia Brown

Flecia Brown, a 1988 Spelman College graduate from Detroit, said misconceptions about HBCUs is another other factor in enrollment decline. “It speaks to non-HBCUers’ lack of confidence and understanding of the history, prestige and educational excellence that goes along with attending an HBCU,” Brown, a manager at an executive recruiter firm, said.

“My experience at Spelman was an extension of how I was raised by my parents. It taught me to be unapologetically black, built character and confidence. ... When my brother (who did not attend an HBCU) was facing his oldest son’s high school graduation and was in search of a college, there was an absence of HBCUs. And I called him out on it," she said. "His response was that nobody really talks about or promotes HBCUs in his Los Angeles community. Of course, that was very disappointing.”

Kathy Brown, who graduated as a mechanical engineer from Tennessee State in 1993, said the inherent issues—older facilities, long lines, dormitory maintenance issues—did not taint her HBCU experience. “Those frustrations were offset by a rigorous curriculum and everlasting memories unique to HBCUs,” she said. “But TSU has had 10 years of declining enrollment, and this saddens me.”

Norfolk State University campus.Courtesy Norfolk State University

Not all schools are struggling, however. North Carolina A&T, for example, has experienced yearly growth in attendance for the last decade. Donations overall to black colleges increased for the ninth straight year, including $479 million for 2018, according to federal data.

So what is the fix? It is a complex answer, but Dial has a theory.

“Presidents have to be more of businessmen and women who understand the university is a business and work hard to align themselves with major corporations,” Dial said. “They need to create partnerships with black and brown countries to offer education to those countries’ young minds in an effort to receive financial backing. This minimizes the need for the handouts from the state and low alumni support, which is another conversation.”