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Local & State

Financial strains hamper HBCU campusesí ability to compete
Anemic giving leave schools vulnerable
Published Wednesday, May 23, 2018 11:10 am
by Herbert L. White

Paige Gates shows off her degree after earning her Johnson C. Smith University degree Sunday at Bojangles’ Coliseum.

Historically black colleges have a legacy of academic achievement.

Finances, however, are a perpetual struggle.

In North Carolina, three private HBCUs – Bennett College in Greensboro, Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh – are in accreditation limbo, primarily due to the handling of their financial health. As small liberal arts schools that don’t have the political muscle of North Carolina’s state-supported campuses, deep-pocketed alumni or nine-figure endowments, they’re waging a different kind of fight for survival.

“Most of our schools are enrollment-driven, so they don’t have huge endowments,” said U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Charlotte Democrat who taught art history for 40 years at Bennett and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at historically black N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. “We really need the federal government to step up, but also our graduates. We also see that our schools suffer in the private loan market because they’ve gone deeper and deeper into debt to fund improvements on the campus. Most of our campuses are over 100 years old – that’s a long time to be in existence. These campuses are old and their infrastructure are in need.”

The task of leading JCSU’s drive to re-accreditation is President Clay Armbrister’s priority. He took over in January, a month after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools held up JCSU’s bid to extending its 10-year accreditation pending a site visit in December.

Armbrister, whose resume before JCSU included a stint as president at Girard College, a preparatory boarding school near Philadelphia, has spent the early part of his administration rebuilding relationships with alumni, who roundly criticized his predecessor, Ronald Carter’s leadership on school finances, among other issues.

“We have some work to do internally, and we’re going to do that work,” Armbrister said in February. “We’re going to have to make sure the resources we do have, we use wisely, but as many HBCUs and other institutions around the country [have maintained], we’re resource-challenged. We’re going to work on that.”

Part of that effort is identifying new revenue streams, including leasing meeting space for community use, for example.

Adams said despite the peril liberal arts schools like JCSU, Bennett and St. Augustine’s face, smaller HBCUs play a role as important as larger public campuses like A&T, Grambling State University in Louisiana or Howard University in Washington, D.C. that have higher national profiles.

The issues around accreditation [at JCSU, Bennett and St. Augustine’s] isn’t about academics,” Adams said. “It’s about finances and their needing funding and that kind of thing that has gotten them into the position they’re in, and we’re probably going to find more of that if we don’t find ways to sustain them and get them pretty stable financially. I would hate to see more schools closed. We need to do everything we can to not only help our schools survive, but to help them thrive.”

HBCU alumni giving is anemic compared to their majority-white counterparts. According to a survey commissioned last year by US News and World Report, black college alumni giving averaged 11.2 percent among schools that contributed data.

Four HBCUs reported alumni contribution rates above 30 percent, with Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, leading the way at 47.7 percent in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years. Spelman College (39.3 percent) in Atlanta and Bennett (35 percent) – both women’s colleges – were second and third during that span, with Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, fourth at 32.9.

JCSU, No. 8 in giving at 17.4 percent, was the only other Carolinas school in the top 10. JCSU, ranked 15th overall in the publication’s annual survey of the nation’s best HBCUs, completed a $159 million capital campaign last year – the most lucrative fundraiser in its history.

“To be quite frank, alumni giving at HBCUs is quite low,” said Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who conducts research on HBCUs, “so if you really care about the institution, give more money.  If alumni really care about HBCUs, they should be giving money and should be encouraging their children and their relatives to attend HBCUs. You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.”

Alumni support goes beyond financial giving said Arabia Deablo of Charlotte, who earned her undergraduate degree from Winston-Salem State University last week. They’re also key stakeholders in raising awareness.

“Alumni have to invest back into their alma mater,” she said. “That not only means giving financially, but being part of boards and committees that have the power to make influence for the university. For those who go to school to be in political organizations and things of that nature, that’s their chance to shine, too. It’s alumni’s responsibility to advocate on behalf of HBCUs and for those who can’t advocate for themselves to make a change.”

Standing in the gap
Adams agrees with Deablo, adding alumni should expand options for giving, such as establishing endowed scholarships.

“Where we can give and when we can give, we ought to give,” Adams said. “We don’t do what we need to do. We go to our HBCUs, get a good education, get good mentoring, and you can’t just go back for a homecoming game. You’ve got to make sure you continue to give back and you begin to do that early. You may not have a lot, but you can continue to grow that giving.
“There are other opportunities for giving. Leave something in your will. Take some insurance policies out and leave the college as the beneficiary so they will get the money. There are installment plans. We have to look back and see there are other young people coming along who may never get an opportunity if we don’t do that. We’ve got to step it up as alums…we’ve got to put out some challenges to our alums.”

State and national governments have cut back on education spending since the Great Recession of 2008, which have made college more expensive for students and their families. Former president Barack Obama enraged black college leaders when his administration changed federal guidelines for a loan program that directly impacted low-income families and forced thousands of students to leave HBCUs. President Donald Trump, who Gasman calls “the worst president ever for HBCUs,” has done little of substance for black colleges other than a much-publicized photo op with their leadership last year. Without financial aid and infrastructure, education advocates say, America's economic mobility will stagnate.

“This country’s greatest expansion of wealth in terms of the middle class was at the end of World War II with the GI Bill and all those folks coming back from World War II would go on and get an education,” Armbrister said. “That’s when we were making America great.”

Last year’s pledge by the Trump administration to do more for HBCUs hasn’t led to federal policy, but Congress took some steps with an omnibus spending package signed into law. Lawmakers have also engaged stakeholders in technology, defense and corporate diversity to build alliances with black colleges.

“[The administration hasn’t] done it, but they’ve been talking a big game and we do have a new executive of the White House Initiative [on HBCUs],” Adams said. “We’re working to introduce to the business world various programming for our schools. We have now expanded our membership [in the HBCU Caucus] to 71 members. We have some bipartisan legislation that will benefit these students and our schools.”

Said Gasman: “States have never given in any substantial way that is equitable to HBCUs. Throughout their history, HBCUs have received inequitable funding from states and now it’s even less. If you’re a state institution, this is deeply problematic because alumni don’t have that much access to capital to give, states are giving less money and it’s always inequitable and I worry about the federal contribution because of who we have in the White House – someone with zero understanding of HBCUs and an open disdain for African Americans.”

Campuses are also becoming more proactive in developing new programs and financial certainty. JCSU has added a master’s degree in social work as well as the Metropolitan College, an undergraduate program for working professionals. The offerings are necessary tools in an education environment where for-profit colleges and community colleges are also competing for students.

“We’re going to diversify our revenue base and expand it to the extent we can,” said Armbrister, whose experience as a college administrator includes executive vice president and chief operating officer at Temple University and senior vice president and chief of staff at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "We’re going to make sure that the resources we do get are used wisely and that people are willing to invest in Johnson C. Smith because it’s very clear to me when you talk to students, it’s worth the investment.  The return on a student at Johnson C. Smith is going to be a great return, not only to the region, but to the community and quite frankly, the world, I think.”

What does future hold?
American education is undergoing shifts in mission, financing and demographics that were unforeseen a half-century ago. In order to compete, HBCUs are going to have to get ahead of the curve in many respects without losing sight of their core mission. In Gasman’s estimation, that means developing a unique academic niche: think A&T for sciences and engineering, Howard for journalism and law or Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee for medicine.

“HBCUs don’t have the institutional aid to give to students that majority institutions have,” Gasman said. “What you have to do is be really strong in your academics; you have to continue to have a really strong family environment where students feel nurtured and supported. You need to be telling people, if you’re the president or representing an HBCU why your institution is important, what’s unique about it and why it’s valuable. …Every institution that is doing well is telling its story on a daily basis.”

JCSU’s goal is to produce graduates who can compete on any stage in any discipline. Ultimately, that’s how colleges are measured.

Armbrister adds: “It’s not about how hard you work. It’s about the results. It’s about the currency of making sure we produce students and scholars. We’re student-centered. We’re producing high-quality graduates who can take on the challenges of the world that we don’t even know yet. That will be the test of what we do.”

Gasman notes that black colleges have “a long history of being open to anyone who wanted to go to them,” and those who stick primarily to a black-students-only strategy in a more diverse nation risks falling behind. While older alumni fear increasing numbers of non-black students will wipe out HBCUs, Gasman believes students born in the 1990s and beyond are more open-minded.

“I think it’s important that HBCUs continue their core mission – it’s incredibly important,” she said. “But, if we’re realistic, there isn’t a college in this country that can’t be reaching out to Latinos and Asian Americans. Those are the two fastest-growing populations in the nation. The fact is there aren’t enough black students going to HBCUs to not be attracting whites and Latinos and Asians. A lot of HBCUs are reaching out to non-blacks because they need the enrollment, and they know that’s where the country’s going. Otherwise, the HBCU is not going to be around.”

Five HBCUs have closed since 1989, while others, like Barber-Scotia College in Concord and Morris Brown College in Atlanta, have been stripped of accreditation for poor financial performance, but 106 campuses have survived. Their advocates are convinced there’s a future.

“A struggle is nothing new for us as African Americans, or our schools,” Adams said. “We were born out of struggle, so we do have to step up.”

Said Gasman: “I think HBCUs are a lot like African Americans. They’re incredibly resilient, they fight like hell to survive and I don’t see that many of them leaving.”


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