The Systemic Barriers Revolving Around HBCUs

Jayiah Gueye, Reimagined Futures for Howard University News Service

Many of today’s respected Black icons and influencers are a product of attending an historically black college or university  (HBCU). From Phylicia Rashad and Vice President, Kamala Harris,  attending Howard University or award winning director, Spike Lee, who attended Morehouse College as well as Clark Atlanta University. “HBCUs have been the bedrock of producing the most successful and influential contributors in all facets of society, including business, government, military, arts and entertainment, you name it” said Roney Badgley, a retired Army colonel and 1983 graduate of Norfolk State University told NBC News in March 2020.

HBCUs are known to have a unique culture including the annual Homecoming, and the Afro-centric curriculum. 

Despite their illustrious history and current praise, HBCUs have faced ongoing struggles with resources and delivering quality. A Report by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges stated HBCU presidents were asked about some of their most pressing strategic issues, it was no surprise that infrastructure, including new construction, deferred maintenance, technology, and real estate, surfaced near the top of their lists. 

Some past alumni of these institutions believe racism plays a role in the shortcomings of these universities. When it comes to receiving funding from the federal government, state programs, and some philanthropic donations, these are things that predominantly white institutions (PWI) continue to benefit from that allow the school to provide more resources for the faculty, staff and students.  Diverse Education writes “Although funding is down across the board, according to the ED official, “any one of [the major research institutions] received more than all of the Black colleges combined. And that’s including Howard University. That’s a disconnect.”

Historical Colleges and their Past

HBCUs were founded shortly after the Civil War with the mission to provide African Americans access to a higher education. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was the first HBCU that was founded on February 25th, 1837. Institutions like these were put in place to grant Black people educational opportunity that was once legally denied to them, providing access to gainful employment, entrepreneurship, and even political stature. 

 However, about 85 years after it was founded Cheney was experiencing challenges. 

According to  an article published by Inside Higher Ed “ Cheyney University is facing rising deficits, falling enrollment and a crumbling campus.” 

Cheney’s fortunes reflected other HBCUs that experienced similar problems that plagued them. WTOP reported that “According to the American Council On Education, more than 70% of HBCU students have limited finances. Michael Lomax, the CEO of United Negro College Fund, said HBCUs have rarely gotten large donations, resulting in endowments that are about 70% smaller than other schools. Diverse Education also stated there was a similar lawsuit in Mississippi that resulted in a $500 million settlement for the state’s HBCUs. 

Funding and Investing 

Identifying issues with the lack of investments into the various HBCU institutions around the country, whether public or private, has been mentioned in various articles and publicly discussed on news platforms. In the past, the first HBCU, Cheyney University had “ no financial reserves and no endowment” which may have resulted in them repaying up to $30 million in federal aid funds because of mishandled administration stated in an Inside Higher Ed article.  Similar issues continue to happen within different HBCUs across the country because of the same problems that haven’t been resolved. According to a Brookings Edu  article, “ Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore —demanded that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) comply with a 2017 court order to resolve damages in an ongoing legal action, and agree to terms under which HBCUs could receive millions of dollars to make up for years of underfunding. According to Michael Lomax, the CEO of the United Negro College Fund said HBCU’s have rarely gotten large donations, resulting in endowments that are 70 percent smaller than other schools. 

The Newport Buzz researched that “the eight elite private colleges of the Ivy League are slated to receive millions in taxpayer-funded coronavirus stimulus money despite controlling endowments with a combined value in 2019 of over $140 billion.”

African Americans still face economic disparity today because of times dating back to sharecropping, segregation and  the Blockbusting era. The automatic set back of equality and fair treatment towards African Americans has led and continued generational struggles for not only the growth and exposure of various HBCU institutions but for the students who long to attend these schools as well. 

Alumni, Vanessa Peoples, was able to express her opinion stating, “With society knowing the past of minorities and lack of corporate funding, generation wealth, state and federal funding of our institutions, that should push others to help fund these schools. African Americans have been denied and excluded on all fronts and wonder why it’s going to take a lot of work for resolution and growth,” she said. 

“With proper funding, most HBCUs would have the ability to provide grants and more in-school scholarships for students, better housing accommodations for continuing students, renovation and architecture resolve for the historic building on campus (used or unused) and more due to the students needs for a beneficial and useful campus and experience” stated Dr. Audrey Byrd, a retired Program Director at Howard University. 

You need another transition to this paragraph since it appears to speak about alumni giving. Additionally you need to give data and figures that explore this. 

Most alum from other schools come back and give back because the school showed they cared, not many Black colleges show students they care. I’m an advocate for HBCUs but a lot of work needs to be done with the care of students and not looking at us as dollar signs. These are the same ones who brag when we become alum and successful so it’s disappointing. We are people too just trying to make it,” Howard student, Demetrius Francis, expresses.

 If alumni or different philanthropists felt the need to invest in the institutions that helped breed them as the barrier-breakers they are today, HBCUs might have a chance to rectify their outdated problems. 

Financial Aid and Affordability 

 According to the American Council on Education, more than 70 percent of students have limited finances. Living in a world where education is the only pathway to acceptance to a better life unless you’re an athlete or entertainer, in many black homes, the only way for a better life is to go to school and get a “good job” which always meant “good [paying] job.

 A recent article from DailyTrojan mentioned “Black students have historically been told that the only way they will be able to achieve excellence is if they are “twice as good” as other (white) students. That gives them no margin of error — small mistakes turn to big mistakes and, when taken as an aggregate, can ruin already slim opportunities.”

Former Howard University student, Demetrius Francis, was a first generation college student. On the move-in day all his mother could afford him was $100 for his transition to college. Francis came to Howard on a full ride Capstone Scholarship. But, while struggling to adjust to independence, work and education, his grades started to slip and resulted in the loss of his scholarship. After being a year away from graduation, Francis had to find a way to cover the cost of the remaining semesters and things became more overbearing for Francis with added responsibility. 

“Lack of resources and finances, and with the loss of my initial scholarship due to my academic challenges, it became overwhelming and I had to take a break. I was supposedly going to the #1 HBCU in the country and facing so many avoidable issues was starting to impact my health, finance, and mental health. I’m angry,” he said. 

Francis explains how he would visit financial aid everyday to figure out a resolve and wasn’t able to get consistent advice that didn’t lead to another visit. Unfortunately, unable to carry the financial burden alone and transfer schools because of his unaffordable balance, Francis now works and is optimistic about this new path in his life. He hopes to one day finish and obtain his degree but chooses to focus on himself first. 

 “This was never a part of my plan, I thought I would get through all 4 years debt free and be starting an entry level job, but with little to no help from faculty, staff and my support system, it just seemed like a better idea to find another plan,” Francis expressed.

“Unless we start having these conversations, or it’s going to keep falling on deaf ears and the cycle will continue for generations to come,”.

Enrollment Management

There are only a few schools in the country who receive an increased load in enrollment; North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M, Texas Southern University, but older colleges and universities have experienced decline or stagnation in enrollment especially from high school graduates. An article from NBC says, “ According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, more than 6,000 fewer students attended the 101 black colleges and universities in the U.S. during the 2018-19 school year. The 291,767 total was down from the 298,134 in the previous year, and was the lowest total since 2001, when there were 289,985 students at historically black colleges.”

Researchers believe it is because of high tuition and little to no scholarships to disperse. 

An NBC report wrote that “A U.S. News study indicates Spelman College leads HBCUs with an 88 percent retention rate, but many other schools drop as low as 50 percent because of financial issues and schools’ inadequate inducements for students to continue their education.” 

NCES ( National Center of Education Statistics) researched “While Black enrollment at HBCUs increased by 17 percent between 1976 and 2018, the total number of Black students enrolled in all degree-granting postsecondary institutions more than doubled during this period. As a result, among Black students the percentage enrolled at HBCUs fell from 18 percent in 1976 to 9 percent in 2010, then showed no measurable change between 2010 and 2018” Whether the school is receiving too many applicants or not enough, the management of the students is what matters most. 

It is becoming known that PWIs are striving to become more diverse by offering minority scholarships. An article from  YouGotIntoWhere says, “You have a better chance of getting a scholarship from a PWI than an HBCU. That’s simply because PWIs have higher endowments, which are money or other financial assets that are donated to universities or colleges, than HBCUs. They say that if you add up all the endowments from all the HBCUs, they would still have less than 10% of Harvard’s endowment. 

This could be a reason for rising athletes coming out of highschool commit to PWIs across the nation, most of the time they’re coming from rough circumstances and can’t afford to attend the institution without a full ride.

Most Black colleges don’t have the funding to provide  widespread academic scholarships because 45 percent of the schools rely heavily on federal, state and local funding. An ACE (American Council on Education) article says, “Public HBCUs rely on federal, state, and local funding more heavily than their non-HBCU counterparts (54 percent of overall revenue vs. 38 percent).Both public and private HBCUs experienced the steepest declines in federal funding per full-time equivalent student between 2003 and 2015, with private HBCUs seeing a 42 percent reduction—the most substantial of all sectors.” This also contributes to the infrastructure of the campus and what appeals to the eyes of the recruits. 

“It seems as if HBCUs are not sophisticated when it comes to having the tools of development in comparison to different organizations,and that can be a specific source of revenue to address the pitfalls”, Dr. Audrey Byrd, a retired program director at Howard University said.. 

Leadership and Organization

College presidents and university chancellors are usually first to blame when challenges within the institution start to arise according to a Report by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges

They preside over educational and financial standards, theft within financial aid, student activities and much more on a private institution level. Engagement, leadership and communication are the primary essentials to holding a leadership position especially in universities managing thousands of students. “Another important aspect to great leadership is qualified and trained staff as well as a board of members who have prior experience and knowledge of what efforts need to be in place to effectively change and improve our HBCUs,” says Howard alumni, Karla Carrell. 

“Presidents have to be more businessmen and women who understand the university is a business and work hard to align themselves with major corporations…this minimizes the need for the handouts from the state and low alumni support, which is another conversation”, an Alumna of South Carolina State University, Darrell Dial tells NBC news

Some alumni believe the solutions to these problems can be found and prevented.“The leader is a figurehead and he should be focused on working with donors and legislatures, but in order to keep things in line, having a strong team is imperative.The systems, processes and integration is less evolved than it appears to be at other institutions and that’s where the stigmas derive from”, Peoples said. 

Peoples continues by saying,  “It is important for people like me who are alumni, in high ranking positions, to come back and help the institutions that contributed to who and what they have today. It’s going to take authority figures, such as Kamala Harris, who have access to people with more money, to promote the experience, understanding the message, and pushing the need. We have the ability to influence these developments, we just need the right ones to do so.”

The HBCU Experience

Reachers have shown in articles that attending an HBCU is not the same as attending any other college around the country. In an Huffing Post article, it was said that HBCUs network is an extended family and that the Alumni have helped paved the way. The article even mentions the difficulty with Financial aid stating, “Dealing with the financial aid office will build character.

Sometimes, going to the financial aid office will feel like a fruitless endeavor. Sometimes you’ll cry. Sometimes you’ll curse. Sometimes you’ll do both — but stay strong. It will give you the resilience of a kitten heel holding steady under the weight of a baby elephant.” 

“All of the barriers activate students to excel on another level”, graduate student Shayla Farrow said.

An article published by College Covered, discusses the studies of benefits attending an HBCU. “ Studies show that minority students attending HBCUs are 6-16% more likely to graduate than minority students enrolled at predominantly white institutions (PWIs).  HBCUs are routinely credited with providing an on-campus learning experience that simply can’t be replicated at PWIs.” A graduated student from North Carolina Central, Chantal Johnson said “ The organizations and clubs at Central give students a voice and a platform to express issues that resonate with us.” 

Many colleges around the nation probably face internal battles behind the scenes. “HBCUs are not without their faults and suffer from the same problems that are currently plaguing all of higher education, Alcair Scott tells College Covered. HBCUs can shape and shift a person into something so powerful and they probably don’t even know.  It teaches you how to problem solve, be persistent and builds character and characteristics that African Americans need to succeed in the workplace, by default not by design.