Elizabeth City State University faced a brief existential crisis last month when North Carolina lawmakers toyed with the idea of closing the historically black institution. The lawmakers backed off, but the episode was just one in a series of challenges facing the country’s 40 public historically black four-year colleges and universities.
Enrollment declines, cuts to government financial aid, leadership controversies and heightened oversight are working together to threaten some HBCUs in new ways and perhaps even jeopardize their existence, according to people who study, work with, and have led HBCUs. Some private black colleges, like other tuition-dependent private institutions, are also struggling, but public HBCUs are being tugged at by a variety of forces, old and new.
Some of the problems are, of course, historic. Public black colleges were created as part of segregated higher education systems, were starved for resources for much of their history, and generally lack the academic facilities, faculty salary pools, and other features found at top public universities. In an era when state leaders are talking about degree completion and speeding up graduation times, many public HBCUs remain proud of historic missions that include taking chances on students who went to poor high schools and who may face long odds.
When Tiffany Jones, an analyst at the Southern Education Foundation, visited one public HBCU to talk about the effects of performance funding on the university, officials there told her that it was “because of race that they were being targeted by the state system of higher education and their history of limited resources had provided them with limited ammunition to fight back.”
Hit Hard by Changes in Grant, Loan Programs
Other obstacles are wholly new. In 2011 the federal government limited the ability of students to use Pell Grants to a total of 12 semesters. Before, Pell had covered up to 18 semesters of college. The change was significant for HBCU students, who take longer on average to finish, and, in turn, HBCUs themselves, which lost tuition revenue because the students couldn’t afford to keep attending. About 85 percent of HBCU students receive Pell Grants, and only about a third of HBCU students graduate within six years, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania who studies colleges that educate minorities.
The federal government has also tightened eligibility for Parent PLUS loans, which were used by many HBCU students’ families to pay for college. HBCU leaders have called the changes, also made in 2011, a “crisis” that limits students' access to higher education.
Other accountability measures by states and the federal government could punish HBCUs that have low graduation rates or have students who do poorly after they graduate. While it may be too soon to tell, HBCU watchers warn the effects could be disastrous.
“It’s going to be ugly. It could be a bloodbath,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Forty-seven HBCUs and predominantly black colleges are members of the fundraising organization.
Taylor said HBCUs, sometimes with fewer resources than predominantly white publics, are trying to educate students with less preparation for college—and now they’re going to be punished for not getting great results.
“You’re asking me to do more with kids who have more need with less resources and then you’re going to hold me accountable if I don’t retain them and graduate them in a shorter period of time,” he said, referring in particular to the effects of the cuts to Pell.
Another rule that yanks federal financial aid from colleges with a high default rate has previously exempted HBCUs from punishment. That’s set to change. Next year HBCUs risk running afoul of federal borrowing thresholds. New standards would eliminate federal aid eligibility if a third of borrowers defaulted within three years of when they began to repay their loans.
Two public HBCUs—Langston University in Oklahoma and Central State University in Ohio—have default rates of more than 30 percent for students who graduated or started paying back their loans in 2010. At Langston, the university with the higher default rate of the two (32.5 percent), officials predict they will be able to avoid losing federal aid dollars.
Senior Langston officials said they have taken action to bring down the default rate for the 2011 cohort to 25.6 percent. Getting below 30 percent for one year resets the clock on losing federal aid.
Langston President Kent J. Smith said the university has tried to educate its students that defaulting on their loans could hurt the university too. “We’re going in the right direction and we have to keep it that way,” he said.
Taylor, of the Thurgood Marshall fund, said HBCU presidents are quite worried about the penalties for high loan default rates. He isn’t sure the colleges should be blamed, particularly because unemployment remains high and colleges can’t exactly control whether or not their graduates get jobs.
Speaking from the perspective of an HBCU president, Taylor said, “We did our part. But because the job market, the economy, won’t absorb them, they are unemployed, can’t pay the student loans, and don’t have parents who can help them pay them—because of the Great Recession—now I, Mr. President, am going to be penalized after I do my part.”
Other public HBCUs are struggling to get students on campus in the first place.
The scare for Elizabeth City State came after state lawmakers wanted to study closing Elizabeth City State because of its enrollment declines. The university has lost more than a quarter of its full-time equivalent enrollment since fall 2010, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which recently downgraded the university’s bond ratings.
North Carolina lawmakers eventually backed away from studying Elizabeth City State’s closure—for now. North Carolina state Rep. Annie Mobley, a graduate of Elizabeth City State who opposed the plan to study closing the university, said in a telephone interview that existential threats to the university are “not going to go away.”
Daniel J. Hurley, a vice president for government relations and state policy at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said public HBCUs are facing “severe challenges” just as the country is focusing on trying to provide access to low-income, minority, and first-generation college students.
“We need all oars in the water, one of them being the public HBCUs,” he said.
Elizabeth City State is far from alone in having to deal with enrollment declines. Of 13 public HBCUs—including Elizabeth City State—that Moody’s rates, at least six have seen notable enrollment declines that are affecting their financial health.
At least part of the problem for HBCUs is a result of more opportunities for black Americans: HBCUs, once just about the only way a black American could get a higher education, no longer have that monopoly on black students because of desegregation. To be sure, even the wealthiest of private black colleges don’t have the endowments of their predominantly white counterparts. But private black colleges can set their own missions, and need not shift gears because of state politics or policies.
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