HBCU’s Fighting for Survival
Presidents Seek Support as Enrollment Plunges Amid Changing Higher Education Landscape
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — As historically black colleges and universities struggle to survive in the face of continued challenges, their unique role makes it vital that they succeed, leaders of several of the institutions said.
The college presidents gathered in Virginia as part of events marking 150th anniversary of Virginia Union, one of the more than 100 historically black colleges and universities, or HBCU’s, across the country. Virginia Union University President Claude Perkins was joined in Richmond by the heads of Benedict College in South Carolina, Bowie State University in Maryland, Tougaloo College in Mississippi, Shaw University and Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina.
Historically black colleges once were the only option for most black students, who made up almost 100 percent of their enrollment in 1950. That began to change in the 1960s, as many doors that once were shut to blacks were opened. Now that black students have a much wider choice of schools, only 11 percent of African-American college students choose a historically black college or university.
Facing often steep declines in enrollment, these schools are struggling to survive. In the last 20 years, five HBCU’s have shut down and about a dozen have dealt with accreditation issues.
In Virginia, St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville closed last year mired in debt and after it lost its accreditation, and Virginia State University’s president announced his intent to resign at the end of the year amid concerns over declining enrollment and financial woes at the school in Ettrick.
“The essence, productivity and survival of historically African- American colleges have been nothing short of a miracle,” Perkins told the crowd of more than 100 people. “The spigot of the black middle class was turned on by HBCU’s back in the days of apartheid and HBCU’s are still doing that work today…..The questions should be not are they relevant, the question should be what can we do to help them do more.”
Perkins and other presidents on the panel outlined the financial and enrollment challenges faced by the schools and highlighted ways they have worked together to face those challenges.
Bowie State President Mickey Burnim said the schools’ revenue is falling due to declines in enrollment, diminishing financial support from governments and low levels of philanthropic donations from alumni. Burnim also said the schools are getting pressure to cut costs while trying to maintain standards and improve campus facilities as they face competition from other colleges and universities, as well as for-profit schools.
Continued pressures also have made collaborations between schools more important than ever, said Shaw University and Johnson C. Smith President Emerita Dorothy Yancy. For example, she said schools have formed partnerships on faculty development, research and efforts to help K-12 and community college students attend historically black colleges and universities.
The presidents also underscored the importance of the schools to the black community and the need for continued support.
“The uniqueness of HBCU’s stem from their role as the principal intellectual resource of the African-American community,” said Benedict College President David Swinton. “And we’re still on that mission today.”