- By Ernie Suggs
Streaming across the top of Concordia College’s official website are the words, “Change a future…Yours.”
Since 1922, students who came through the tiny Lutheran College in Selma, Ala., could live by those words.
Last week, officials at the college – which was down to 400 students, 100 staffers and at least $8 million in debt – announced that the school would close at the end of the spring semester.
With the loss of Concordia, the number of historically black colleges and universities is down to an even 100 schools that are accredited. Several experts predict that small financially-strapped schools like Concordia will continue to struggle and face closure over the next 20 years.
Earlier this year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a three-week investigation into the health and future of black colleges.
While many schools like Howard University, Fisk University and North Carolina Central University continue to thrive, at least 17 HBCUs are known to have closed over the last century with seven of the closings coming since 1989
The last school to close before Concordia was St. Paul’s College in 2013.
Concordia’s closing was unique in that it was fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, although it has been on the brink financially for years.
In addition, the AJC reported that between 2005 and 2015, enrollment declined by 43 percent. The 2015 six-year graduation rate was 10 percent.
“It was the toughest thing I’ve had to do in my 50 years of higher education,” the school’s chief transition officer and interim president James Lyons told the Selma Times-Journal. “The board of regents has been working a number of years to try to solidify the college’s financial situation by looking at investors both foreign and domestic. So this has been a long effort that has spanned several years, and the board had to decide at some point we’ve got to close if we cannot find an investor partner.”
The Selma Times-Journal reported that the school’s board had given administrators until Feb. 16 to find investors that would allow them to pay off $8 million in debt.
They found no takers, and with tuition at more than $10,000 – comparable to the University of Alabama and Auburn – school officials were reluctant to raise costs.
More than 90 percent of the students at Concordia were eligible for Pell Grants, meaning that they are from low-income families.
The private school – which was part of the 10-school Concordia University system -- was the only HBCU in the country affiliated with the Lutheran church.
Students, faculty and staff will receive assistance through the transition, although details have not been made public.
Here are five things the AJC reported in its series: HBCUs: A Threatened Heritage:
Some schools stuggle:
In November, Cheyney University, founded in 1837 and regarded as the oldest HBCU in the nation, was a day away from closing because of accreditation issues.
Here in Georgia, Paine College -- whose graduates include DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and journalist Louis Lomax -- has been in a deathmatch with SACS to keep its accreditation that caused enrollment to dive.
Enrollment at Paine has declined by more than 50 percent since 2010. Its six-year graduation rate is 22 percent, according to federal data, barely one-third the national average for all colleges.
Morris Brown College, which lost its accreditation in 2003 remains open. But barely with 55 students.
“I use a phrase that got me in trouble. After 7½ years in this space and seeing a decline overall, my phrase is, ‘I am hopeful, but not optimistic,’” said Johnny Taylor, former president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports public HBCUs.
Author and University of Missouri journalism professor Ron Stodghill, who wrote “Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture,” theorizes that by “the year 2035 the number of HBCUs will be down to 35 and only 15 of those will be thriving.”
But most are still shining:
In Atlanta, it is almost a given that stalwalts like Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, will always be considered elite black colleges in both reputation and through a deep analysis of data.
But there are other schools worth noting. Howard University, with its deep ties and extensive roster of professional schools, including medicine, dentistry and law, remains perhaps the most comprehensive HBCU in the country.
North Carolina A&T State University graduates more black engineers than any school in the nation - black or white. And is investing millions back into the campus to grow programs and facilities.
In South Carolina, with only about 2,000 students, Claflin University has quietly emerged as a destination HBCU with a growing endowment, high graduate and retention rates and an HBCU standard 52 percent alumni giving rate.
The history of HBCUs is deep and lasting:
The first HBCU to open in the South was Shaw University in Raleigh in 1865 to educate the sons and daughters of slaves. But up North, as far back as 1837 with the opening of African Institute, (now Cheyney University), and 1854 with the opening of Ashmun Institute (Lincoln University, Pa.) the concept of educated blacks in a deeply divided and segregated America was taking root.
Following Shaw’s lead, dozens of black colleges took shape in the South before the dawn of the 20th century.
Today, close to 300,000 students attend the country’s 101 HBCUs in 19 states, plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
According to the United Negro College Fund, 70 percent of all black doctors and dentists and 50 percent of black engineers and public school teachers came from black colleges. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund, reports that 80 percent of black judges, 50 percent of black lawyers and black professors at non-HBCUs, and 40 percent of the black members of congress, attended black colleges.
“There are only two institutions that are ours — the black church and the colleges,” Taylor said. “These are the entities that got us through. All of our teachers and role models are HBCU grads. So whether or not you attended an HBCU or not, we have all been touched by them.”
HBCU graduates have fascinating stories:
As part of the AJC’s series, the team put together “HBCU Journeys,” a 10-part podcast. The podcast stripped away the data that the series had collected to focus directly on the personal stories of people who attended HBCUs.
Stories about being a minority on a black college campus; surviving in a dormitory; having a small, but key role in a Spike Lee film; and the pressures of being at an elite school when you are expected to be the best.
“My teachers really really got on me,” Carlton Riddick recalled in episode 5. “It was like I had a second mother and father. They were on me. And Mrs. Ledbetter…she was my English lit teacher. In every class we had to write a paper…. and she would give it back to me red as I don’t know what. I had been used to that because I would hate to give my papers to my mother because my mother would do the same. So it was like I had my mother again in a class.”
Students have options:
For more than a century, HBCUs have produced a significant portion of this region and the nation’s doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers, political and religious leaders, while building America’s black middle class.
HBCUs were often the only places black students could attain a higher education -- even when they were qualified to go anywhere they wanted to.
“When I was growing up in West Memphis, Ark., in the heart of the Delta, we didn’t have many options,” said Charlie Nelms, a long-time college president, administrator and now educational consultant. “And failure was not an option, who wanted to go back picking cotton?”
With schools like the University of Arkansas out of his reach, Nelms graduated from what was then Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College and is now known as the the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1968. He would go on to be the first black chancellor of Indiana University – East and the University of Michigan at Flint, before returning to the HBCU environment in 2007 to take over North Carolina Central University.
Times have changed. Talented black students are now being recruited heavily by PWIs, who are offering amenities, programs and more importantly, affordability, that some black colleges can’t match. Georgia State University, graduates more black students than any other college in the nation. Delanie Mason, a freshman at Kennesaw State University, liked the majors that the school offered, despite the fact that everyone in her family attended an HBCU.
But students like Kendall Youngblood are keeping the traditions and dreams alive. The 22-year-old junior transferred to Clark Atlanta University from the University of Connecticut.
“At HBCUs, you have to put yourself out there,” Youngblood said. “When you put yourself out there, it’s a different experience. You have more fun. You get a sense of being proud of the school you are at.”