Black colleges look online as pathway to post-pandemic stability

Morris Brown College President Kevin James was hired three years ago and tasked with reviving the school’s fortunes.

It didn’t take him long to decide that Morris Brown needed to offer more online courses, so he hired someone to lead the effort at the historically Black college near downtown Atlanta.

“Just as we began the process, COVID made us move a bit faster,” James recalled.

Many Black colleges learned through the pandemic that the future of higher education will require a mix of online and in-person learning. Leaders from about 30 historically Black colleges and universities are gathering in Atlanta this week for a conference to discuss best practices for their schools. Online learning will be a key part of the agenda during the five-day event organized by the United Negro College Fund.

“This is going to be, I believe, a real landmark, innovative moment for HBCUs to ensure that we are including more students in the educational process, that we’re doing it in a high quality and innovative way,” UNCF president Michael Lomax said in an interview.

Jayla Atkins, a Clark Atlanta University senior, works with a group of first graders in the Horizons Atlanta summer program on Thursday, June 9, 2022. Clark Atlanta educators are participating in a five-day conference organized by the United Negro College Fund that aims to help historically Black colleges and universities improve academic services in areas like online education, technology and student performance. (Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

UNCF leaders are working on an online platform — HBCUv — that will, at some point, allow students at the nation’s 102 accredited HBCUs to take virtual courses at any of the schools. Lomax and his team believe the initiative will create more flexibility for students, which could improve academic performance and boost enrollment.

It also could be good for the schools’ bottom lines.

College enrollment has declined nationally by 7% since the pandemic and is expected to continue dropping. Higher education analysts attribute the drop to lower birth rates in the United States. Other experts say it’s because college is too expensive and schools are inadequately preparing students for the future.

Atlanta has six HBCUs, the largest concentration in any city nationwide. There are four HBCUs in other parts of Georgia. Combined, Georgia’s HBCUs had about 21,000 students last school year.

Spelman graduates exit the 2022 Spring Commencement at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Sunday May 15, 2022. (Natrice Miller /

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Financially, HBCUs have less margin for error than many schools. Collectively, they receive less money from donors, government and graduates. Public and private HBCUs experienced steep declines in federal funding per full-time equivalent student between 2003 and 2015, with private HBCUs seeing a 42% reduction, according to a 2019 brief by the American Council on Education, a public policy group for U.S. colleges and universities.

Georgia state senators, noting the pipeline HBCUs produce for various industries, created a study committee this month in part to explore ways they can help better support the schools.

Most Georgia HBCUs were founded in the late 19th century, when other colleges and universities refused to admit Black students. The schools embrace the role of educating students who need more support, enrolling a higher percentage of students from lower-income households.

Not all of the schools are struggling. Donations to some HBCUs reached unprecedented levels two years ago, after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis led to nationwide social justice demonstrations. Morehouse and Spelman colleges, along with the UNCF, each received $40 million gifts that summer from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife, philanthropist Patty Quillin. Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse School of Medicine have also received record donations since 2020.

Still, many HBCU supporters have been lobbying for more state and federal funding to address security scares. Earlier this year, several dozen schools, including some in Georgia, received bomb threats.

HBCU leaders say the additional federal funding also could help with much-needed repairs and construction of classrooms and campus housing, as well as technological upgrades necessary to provide quality online courses.

Public and private HBCUs reported average deferred maintenance backlogs of $67 million and $17 million, respectively, according to a 2018 federal report. And many of the older buildings do not have the capacity to provide adequate digital services or research, HBCU supporters say. Of the $42 billion the federal government spent on research and development at U.S. colleges in one recent year, just $400 million came to HBCUs, according to a Thurgood Marshall College Fund study.

“The infrastructure needs have been put on pause for decades, so it is time we address these critical needs,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, whose district includes the city’s HBCUs.

Williams supports the America COMPETES Act, which would provide $1.2 billion to HBCUs and other Minority Serving Institutions for research and development needs. She’s also pushing for passage of the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act, which would award grants to HBCUs to improve campus facilities.

Kinnis Gosha (left), the Hortinius I. Chenault Endowed Division Chair for Experiential Learning and Interdisciplinary Studies, and Rodney Sampson (right), chairman & CEO of OHUB, speak to Morehouse student Corey Shaw during an online coding boot camp created by Morehouse College in 2020. The college started an online education program in 2021. (HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM)

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In some respects, HBCUs are playing catch up. While more than one-half of U.S. colleges and universities were offering online courses in 2019, just one-quarter of HBCUs were doing the same, UNCF leaders said. Georgia Tech, which has seen roughly a 50% increase in enrollment in the last five years, is prospering from online education. More than one-third of its enrollment comes from graduate students taking courses online.

UNCF leaders said they hope to launch its online platform by next year. Clark Atlanta is among the HBCUs helping to develop the platform. Clark Atlanta already has its own online education program. Morehouse and Spelman colleges last year began online certificate and degree programs. Morehouse has 122 online students enrolled in its summer semester.

Morris Brown College, which regained its accreditation in April after having it revoked nearly 20 years ago, now conducts 60% of its classes in an online format, James said. He’s hoping to offer more courses online.

Morris Brown President Kevin E. James speaks at a press conference announcing the college’s accreditation status in Atlanta on Thursday, April 28, 2022. (Natrice Miller /

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

Lomax, a former Fulton County Commission chairman who has led the UNCF since 2004, said he’s eager to see HBCU leaders share ideas on technology and other topics at the conference.

“We don’t want this to be a moment,” he said. “We want this to be an opportunity to build momentum to transforming these institutions.”