It is hard to determine a worse proposition for historically black colleges; that industry, culture, and finance have converged to threaten the existence of most of our schools, or that Black America doesn’t have the wealth or awareness to do anything about it.
The more that we can remove ourselves from the emotions wound tightly around both of these sobering realities, the sooner we’ll be able to empower the conversation we should’ve had 20 years ago – that America is better served with about 50 HBCUs.
Over the last five years, I’ve personally struggled with writing these sentences as the anchor to a column I wish I didn’t have to write. And I did everything I could to deliver this truth without the specific language that reading between the lines betrayed every time. Hundreds of columns about board-president relationships, budget cuts from state and federal governments, statistics on alumni giving and enrollment – they all lead back to a sad tomorrow.
And along the way, other higher education observers and experts began to notice. College costs have outpaced the capacity of average families to make up the difference beyond public loans and grants. Nearly half of all American colleges and universities enroll fewer than 1,000 students – a sign of imminent collapse under debt and operating cost requirements, if not first crushed by accreditation standards on finance.
The numbers for HBCUs, like most data on African American prosperity, are even worse. Along with bad outlook on finance, HBCU presidents turnover at alarming rates. Enrollment ebbs at rates that make personnel and programmatic development virtually impossible.
The picture is so grim, those of us who consider ourselves advocates have pressed to the limit to force change against seemingly inevitable odds. I pursued a job with the Trump Administration, hoping that relationships and knowledge I’ve built over 15 years of work, consulting, advocacy and reporting at and around HBCUs may have benefited these schools from the point where nearly all black college revenue originates.
I was willing to sell my business, to connect my name and career to a controversial president, and to do anything possible to help preserve even one of our most vulnerable campuses. There’s many of us like that, and yet, not nearly enough of us.
And what’s more, the things we are willing to do to help out are not nearly enough. There’s nothing that government or iron-clad HBCU advocacy can do to make Paine College, Cheyney University, Stillman College, Bennett College, and other campuses in silent and dire straits profitable. Nothing will make their surrounding communities pour the millions into the campuses to make them more attractive to a wider pool of prospective students or corporate donors.
And seemingly, there’s nothing that can be done to keep them from closing in the next three years or less.
There are dozens of other campuses which are right behind them that many of us know are awaiting an undignified demise to glorious histories – their names I won’t list here because there is a slim chance for survival in some form. But to survive, they must have dramatic changes in leadership and function – some of them need to be taken over by their respective states, and most need to merge with more stable public institutions.
But knowing this, it is time for the HBCU community to take a serious look at focusing on the 50 or so HBCU campuses which are most likely to survive this wave of change and have some strand of hope for thriving. Many of our large and mid-sized state flagship and private HBCUs fit this bill – and if we focus our money and energy on making their academic and social products congruent with the cities and states they serve, there is a chance that they can meet the new model of higher education – fewer campuses with 15-20,000 plus students offering degrees in fields designed to support the 21st-century economy.
We know which schools and which programs have the pipelines into competitive careers for students, and attract millions in donor gifts, research grants, and tuition revenue. We know which boards and presidents have brought innovation, charisma, and value to the sector, and those which haven’t.
Now is the time to invest in the campuses which will advance HBCU culture respectably; and to begin the last rites for those which offer little brand recognition, industrial complement, or inspiration in their students and graduates. Demanding support from the government and blaming the lack thereof on racism, chiding alumni and blaming their lack of investment on disloyalty, and wondering why students won’t choose HBCUs and blaming their decision on racial ambivalence has never been a strategy.
It’s always been a convenient extension of real problems outweighing the power of our resilience and the mission of our institutions.
We will either live for a leaner future or suffer in remembrance of a rich and glorious past. The choice is ours and must be made right now.