This fall, a peculiar certainty will collide with a frightening unknown and catch up all of America’s historically black colleges and universities in its wake — Donald Trump’s presidency and the shrinking likelihood of a coronavirus vaccine.
Both will dramatically impact the 100 black colleges and universities mostly scattered throughout the south, in states where economics and public health are in a knife fight for the high stakes of future sustainability.
HBCU presidents and chancellors have spoken eloquently on the subject. Some say opening will certainly look different, but only with the appropriate levels of testing and municipal clearance.
Others have said that even with these conditions, gambling with human lives requires us to think differently about the higher education enterprise in a completely different way.
Each voice is grounded in care for black communities. But there is a theory that opening without in-person instruction may do irreparable harm to all HBCUs, and even expedite closing for some of the most vulnerable campuses.
For them and the communities they serve, we have to consider full and “new normal” opening as much as we have to consider scaled operations.
For the Culture
A sizable number of colleges and universities are likely to open this fall with dramatically different operations. Residence and dining halls, library resources, social spaces, and classrooms are likely to be halved in the total number of bodies they can hold and the kind of movement and proximity they will allow.
All of those spaces at HBCUs are a part of the cultural infrastructure — the places where the nurturing environments, small class sizes, clear pathways to personal and professional success — each take shape. These are where memories are made and allegiance to the HBCU brand is affirmed and strengthened.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, federal data revealed that total national HBCU enrollment had fallen to a 17-year-low in 2018, just one year after the sector had realized its first increase since 2011. This was three years after some HBCU leaders like Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough predicted that HBCU enrollments would rise in the wake of racial unrest at campuses like the University of Missouri.
The predictions and forecasts were premature even without the unforeseen forces of global pandemic response. With them, they bring to light a certain truth about the need for HBCUs to be open even at dramatically lower levels of service and operation. If our campuses were losing students with all of the social and cultural advantages that make them without peer in the industry, what will happen if we don’t avail even a partial number of students to an abridged version of the culture and nurturing which set them apart?
For the Numbers
In March, the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s Board of Directors scaled back its rules on college recruitment timetables and practices in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. In short, colleges that were once restricted from recruiting and offering admissions and scholarships to students after a certain period of engagement are now open to contact students anytime, without regard for offers students may have already accepted or down payments they’ve made on registration or housing.
Schools with wider margins of finances or alumni with deeper pockets can now buy students out of down payments in exchange for them changing their enrollment intentions from school to school. It also means that schools that had been increasingly targeting students from the traditional HBCU talent pool — minority and low-income — will now have more opportunities to poach these students away from black colleges.
These are just the realities of the college enrollment recruiting wars that launched well ahead of the coronavirus outbreak. With coronavirus now a part of our daily lives, schools must add several questions to the equation:
How much revenue will we lose from natural attrition due to students being afraid of being on a college campus?
How much revenue will we lose from students who enroll, but opt out of meal and board plans?
How much revenue will we lose from the number of out-of-state students who will transfer to be closer to home, or those who will not enroll because of infection concerns?
How much revenue will we lose from a decline in international student enrollment?
These questions are scary for boards and presidents across the landscape; but the difficult truth is that they can only entertain these questions if they are aggressive about reopening for student instruction in the fall, to give their campuses a chance to see what the numbers may ultimately be.
For the Politics
The Trump Administration has given HBCUs more than $930 million in funding to support future and returning students to HBCUs, and to reduce costs associated with evacuating and outfitting campuses for social distancing. Colleges and universities are becoming increasingly aggressive about reopening not because they do not care about the threat of sickness or death on campus, but because they know that a Trump-led Department of Education is likely to throw billions more at schools rising to meet the narrative of “open for business” to fit the politics of economic recovery and reelection.
It is a complex game to play, but one we may not be able to afford to sit out. Current funding levels may help the HBCUs that are closest to financial stability to set a standard for campus design and programming which may advance the cause of how black people and black institutions do business when we are the greatest sufferers at the hands of the coronavirus. And for the less financially stable campuses, the funding will be enough to keep them operable and payrolls secured.
What happens to the campuses that shy away from or outright reject the politics of recovery by opening exclusively online? Will they miss out on funding opportunities? Most of all, how will the black communities anchored by HBCUs suffer as a result?
For the People
North Carolina is one of the states plagued by a spike in reported coronavirus infections following a national push to relax commercial access restrictions. It is also home to the highest number of HBCUs in the country, and with that number, it is the greatest concentration of statewide and community-based scholarly research and outreach for African Americans communities anywhere in the country.
While the important debate about reopening campuses continues worldwide, black communities that are suffering infection and death at nightmarishly disproportionate rates are also missing the essential research, public awareness and protection provided by HBCUs.
Our schools, in North Carolina and beyond, are responsible for the funded research, the grantmaking, the community forums, the interventions in schools in churches which help black Americans to live smarter, healthier, and wealthier lives. Without these labs and research hubs in even scaled operations, thousands of these citizens stand greater chances of becoming sick and dying because of a lack of resources, testing, and counseling on how to beat back the viruses.
The coronavirus has shown the great miscalculation of generational divestment and interference with HBCU growth; the universities which could’ve trained the nurses and healthcare workers that could’ve saved lives today were diverted to other communities and states as a result of black colleges being maligned in brand, academic offerings, and leadership.
If for no other reason, HBCUs should be open for business to conduct testing and to marshal the resources of students, faculty, and alumni in helping black residents to combat what years of racism and neglect have wrought against our people in education, in politics, in geographical expansion in the midst of this unprecedented public health war. And while every protection should be taken to preserve their lives with equipment and resources, the lack thereof doesn’t mean that we shut down and shut off support for families and communities beyond our HBCU borders.
For the Future
Five years ago, legislators in South Carolina suggested that corruption and failing finance at South Carolina State University required for the school to be shut down for two years. The argument — closing and removing the burden of paying personnel, bills and taking away bad leadership would allow the school to return to a sound footing.
Fortunately, that argument failed for social and economic reasons. The state has still marginalized the school with bad leadership, and it has suffered in very harmful ways. But even with its struggles, the flagship HBCU of the state still stands. It never shut down, and because it didn’t, it remains with a fighting chance to possibly thrive in spite of legislative efforts to destroy it.
One day, the world will beat the coronavirus pandemic. We’ll all experience life in new ways; perhaps smarter, perhaps safer, and perhaps better than when we put life on hold to hide from the virus. But will that be true for historically black institutions if we hide their culture, their operations, and their research at a time when the world needs it most?
There is every reason in the world to protect black people at HBCUs from a deadly virus, but there’s every reason to believe that if we don’t reopen HBCUs in some measure this fall, the world may more quickly embrace the false narrative that HBCU stakeholders have been fighting against since their inception:
The world really doesn’t need black colleges.