The Quiet War on Private HBCUs

Why Private Black Colleges are at Greater Risk Than They’ve Ever Been

Why Private Black Colleges are at Greater Risk Than They’ve Ever Been

Sam Allard/

Wilberforce University yesterday named former Livingstone College COO and VP of Advancement Herman Felton as the school’s 21st president. Felton brings a record of philanthropic success and diverse experience in predominantly white and historically black higher ed contexts, to a school that just a few years ago flirted with closure amid student rebellion, accreditation warning and approaching financial disaster.

Felton and so many others sign up for more than the prestige and perks of leading an historically black institution — they stake their personal and professional legacies on under-served communities, faculty and staff who have been underpaid and overworked, and a niche brand of higher education that is struggling for air in an industry that is restricting at all levels.

Find a community that believes fully in the HBCU brand, and you’ll be able to write glorious chapters in a distinguished career. Fail, and find yourself in political purgatory which extends far beyond your campus, city and state.

Wilberforce is a private HBCU, and in spite of its successes over the last two years, remains among a cadre of small, historic institutions engaged in battles against industry, economy, politics and time to save itself from being the next great institution lost to history.

This is tradeoff for the college presidency, and for black colleges, is the most dangerous proposition in higher education.

The Accreditation Factor

Last November, Wilberforce was removed from an accreditation ‘show cause’ order issued by the Higher Learning Commission, one of dozens of federally approved accreditation agencies authorized to monitor a school’s sustainability and eligibility to receive student loans and grants disbursed by the U.S. Department of Education.

That work, spurred by recently-retired Wilberforce President Algeania Freeman, helped to stabilize commitments from students and faculty to remain on campus just two years after undergraduates threatened mass transfers. She discussed the transformation in Digest podcast episode last fall.

Two years later, the Department of Education launched preliminary plans to discontinue financial aid disbursements to schools considered ‘financially risky’ or which have been found to have tricked students into enrolling while knowingly preying upon students with false promises of high job placement rates. Included in those plans, efforts to penalize accreditation agencies which allow struggling schools to operate under adverse conditions.

Wilberforce’s accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission, also oversees the University of Phoenix, which has faced previous federal scrutiny for alleged predatory practices. If it, Wilberforce, or other institutions are found to be a high financial risk for students, they can be forced to publicly disclose their financial outlook, and would be open to lawsuits from former students who might claim predatory practices which prevented them from getting a good job or being able to pay back student loans.

Financial Challenges

By most accounts, private black colleges are the most nurturing, welcoming places for black students living and learning in higher ed space. But they are also among the most financially-challenged campuses in the country. Of the 50 private four-year schools classified as historically black institutions, 28 of them enroll fewer than 1,000 students, 21 schools enroll between 1,000–5,000 students, and only one, Howard University, enrolls more than 5,000 students.

To broaden the perspective, 40 percent of the nation’s four-year colleges and universities enroll fewer than 5,000 students. For black colleges, 70 percent. From the Washington Post:

At these colleges, there is zero margin for error. A first-year class that comes in even one or two students short of estimates wreaks havoc on the budget. About two out of 10 colleges are running annual budget deficits. Even as they raise their sticker price each year and look more unaffordable to families, they actually generate less revenue to invest in new academic programs, buildings, and faculty because tuition dollars account for nearly 60 percent of the revenue at colleges with enrollments of less than 5,000 students.

Even with a discounted price, tuition remains out of reach for families forcing students to take on high levels of debt, and too many of these colleges suffer from low graduation rates or poor placement rates into jobs paying wages that allow students to pay off their loans.

The Good News

Prices are high, student debt is even higher, but for the private sector, there are tremendous opportunities in pairing academic programs and professional development for graduates. Tougaloo College and Fisk University both boast articulation agreements with leading research institutions to forge graduate school entry for graduates in medical and applied science fields.

Despite having higher costs than their public peers, private HBCUs remain among the most affordable college options in the nation, and offer the access and support systems necessary for a wide range of students to receive academic and professional development. Indeed, everything is not doom and gloom about private HBCUs.

The stories of these programs, and the benefits of attendance, too frequently go untold against the narrative of black college struggles. Of the HBCUs to be closed or to cease operations in the last five years — Saint Paul’s College, Knoxville College and Barber-Scotia College — all private. Morris Brown College, the tenacious emblem of HBCU trial and triumph, remains open and work towards earning new accreditation — even earning part of a federal grant for building awareness among Atlanta college students about the connections between drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases.

Opportunities for these schools remain, but can they be developed fast enough, and done with investment from communities and government alike? Can presidents, even new, visionary ones with records of success, take the helm to realize opportunities beyond the HBCU tradition? Or are they doomed to become the first and most violent casualties of the changing industry of higher education?

Herman Felton is the new president of Wilberforce University, but his greatest challenge doesn’t lie in making sure he is the best president the school has ever seen, but in making sure he isn’t the last the campus will ever see.