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Pandemic ushers in 'new normal' for historically underfunded HBCUs

"We are scared to death. It is not safe. The cases are rising. I am worried sick. I have not had a good night's sleep since March," Benedict College's president said.
Image: President Michael Sorrell
President Michael Sorrell of Paul Quinn College poses with students in Dallas on May 4, 2019.Roberto Hernandez / Paul Quinn College

When South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, issued an order in early March to close all public schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Roslyn Clark Artis jumped into action.

Artis, the president of Benedict College — a private, historically Black liberal arts school in Columbia — knew she had to evacuate roughly 2,000 students from campus, which she described as a "herculean effort."

"I put out a bat signal, a call for help, and sent a letter to my board of trustees and within 24 hours they raised $54,000 and we set up a travel agency in my office," Artis told NBC News in a phone interview.

The school ended up buying more than 100 plane, bus and train tickets to get the students with greatest need home, started a 24-hour shuttle service from the campus to local airports, bought luggage for students, paid baggage fees and provided a small meal stipend for students who had long layovers and needed to eat in the airport.

That was just the beginning. Now, Artis is preparing for the fall with her bat signal still on.

Many historically Black colleges and universities like Benedict were founded and subsidized by states, the federal government, philanthropists or churches, among others, to specifically educate Black Americans who were, throughout history, barred from attending majority-white schools. Many HBCUs have always had to do more with less, experts say. In recent years, a number of schools have been forced to the brink of closure or put their accreditation at risk.

Artis has made a decision to have only the students with the greatest need — roughly 900 — come back to campus and implore others to stay home for virtual learning. It's not the best for the school's bottom line, she said, but the best for her students.

Since March, there have been 13 coronavirus cases resulting from her students living in crowded homes with their families. Some students are experiencing homelessness. One of her rising seniors, a football player, was shot and killed in April. And many students are subsidized by federal or state grants and scholarships, which often do not bring money to the school.

"I think we put everybody in the bucket of if they're open, they're money-grubbers; if they're closed, they're concerned for safety," she said, noting she has refunded tuition payments and honored sports scholarships that would otherwise go unused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "We are scared to death. It is not safe. The cases are rising. I am worried sick. I have not had a good night's sleep since March."

"However," she added, "what we know to be a fact with low-wealth, first-generation kids of color: Many times they are safer at Benedict, even with COVID-19, than they are in their communities where they are food-insecure, housing-insecure and physically unsafe."

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted those funding and resource inequities, experts say, and forced some of these schools to make tough decisions to continue to educate their unique population.

"COVID-19 has affected HBCUs just like every other campus, but one of the things that our institutions are disproportionately affected by is, our institutions disproportionately educate a lower-income population," said Brian Bridges, vice president of research and member engagement for the United Negro College Fund, which works with more than 30 HBCUs. "And COVID-19 is exacerbating, or at least reinforcing, how much of a divide there is between the haves and have-nots."

More than 70 percent of students attending HBCUs are low-income, compared to 35 to 40 percent nationally, Bridges said. As a result, UNCF worked with a number of HBCUs to provide tech support, laptops and other resources as schools moved to virtual learning environments to try to slow the spread of the virus. It also worked with schools that took a financial hit after returning refunds to students by lobbying for federal assistance.

Under the CARES Act, HBCUs received more than $500 million in aid, which experts say helped many schools stay afloat but also helped somewhat close the historic gap in funding.

Harry Williams, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which works closely with nearly 50 public HBCUs, said despite the historic funding woes, the pandemic "played a major role in basically magnifying the inequities" but also showed very clearly how HBCUs "can adjust and adapt."

It's an issue Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, another historically Black school, is all too familiar with. He became the Dallas college's president more than a decade ago and eliminated the school's football program to rescue its budget.

Despite making the school's financial position whole in recent years, the pandemic has scrapped plans for any on-campus learning, and in the fall, Paul Quinn College is moving to an online-only environment.

As some predominately white schools, such as New York University, face tuition lawsuits from students over the pandemic, Sorrell said his school's model has always been "put students first."

"Funding doesn't have a damn thing to do with your compassion and your concern, or your moral compass," he said. "And my staff believes, and our institution believes, that people didn't send you their kids to treat them as an accessory to your bottom line, right?"

Prior to the pandemic, Paul Quinn College already provided basic health care access and mental health screening for students. In the fall, it's continuing to do that as well as provide laptops and other resources to accommodate students to a "new normal."

"We're going to work really hard, not say, 'We can only be this because this is all the money we have,'" Sorrell said. "Yes, we do have restrictions. Yes, we are cognizant of our financial position. But, I mean, if you're a parent, do you really want to hear me tell you that the reason your child died was because I didn't have the budget to keep them safe? I don't know how that conversation would go."

Outpouring of philanthropy

Last year, when billionaire philanthropist Robert Smith, who is Black, pledged to eliminate up to $40 million in student loans for Morehouse College's almost 400 graduates, his gift was heralded as both historic and a life-changing event. It also thrust historically Black colleges and universities into the national spotlight and highlighted their financially precarious position in higher education.

Image: Howard University
Howard University in Washington, D.C.Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images file

A year later, a bigger sea change event happened for a number of HBCUs across the country: the outpouring of support in the form of philanthropy in the wake of the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody.

Floyd's death prompted a racial reckoning across the country and a clarion call for improving existing racial inequalities.

In recent weeks, MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of billionaire Jeff Bezos and one of the world's richest women, gave more than $100 million to six HBCUs, including Howard University in Washington and Morehouse College in Atlanta — resulting in some of the biggest single gifts to these schools. Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings and his wife, philanthropist Patty Quillin, also announced a $120 million donation to several HBCUs. Dominion Energy, the Virginia-based energy company, donated a combined $25 million to 11 HBCUs in four states to be dispersed over six years.

Many more donations — both public and anonymous — have flowed to several HBCUs and organizations that support them. But HBCU presidents and other experts say it is too early to tell how this philanthropy will help HBCUs in the long run.

"What we know is that there are a small number of schools that the donors who have been giving these significant gifts to, in this season, feel comfortable giving to," Sorrell said. "In order for this moment to sustain itself, we're going to have to see an expansion of that."

However, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund's Williams sees it as creating a stronger financial foundation for these schools.

"It's only going to make the institutions better and also help with the sustainability of these schools," Williams said. "This is one of those moments in time: The light has shined on us and it's bright and the opportunity to introduce a new generation the power of historically Black colleges."