Amid rising interest from students, HBCUs must face pandemic’s toll

Kinnis Gosha (left), the Hortinius I. Chenault Endowed Division Chair for Experiential Learning and Interdisciplinary Studies, speaks to students as Rodney Sampson (right), chairman & CEO of OHUB, and Corey Shaw, Morehouse student, look during an online coding bootcamp created by Morehouse College at Morehouse College on Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

A group of teenagers were surprised when they came outside their homes one afternoon last month for a “honk and wave” parade organized by Stockbridge residents celebrating their accomplishment, graduating from high school.

The students are part of the Stockbridge Youth Council, and nearly all of them plan to attend a historically black college or university — including some in Georgia — this fall.

“It was always a HBCU for me,” said Kyla Jordan, 18, who plans to attend Clark Atlanta University and fell in love with the campus after a visit.

“I just want to be surrounded by people who have the same heritage as me and have some of the same values that I have,” she explained.

Kyla Jordan graduated this spring from Stockbridge High School and plans to attend Clark Atlanta University this fall. Jordan, 18, visited the university before the coronavirus pandemic and said she fell in love with the campus. 

The fall semester will be a pivotal time for HBCUs as they balance renewed interest in their missions during a time of racial unrest with surviving in the midst of a health crisis. Many administrators anticipate enrollment declines this fall and planned social distancing guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic may limit how many students can actually take in-person classes. So, even if more students want to enroll, the colleges may have no room for them.

Two of Atlanta's HBCUs, Morehouse and Spelman colleges, received a significant financial boost last week when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife, philanthropist Patty Quillin, announced plans to donate $40 million to each school, the largest single contribution they've ever received. The couple asked that the funding be used to give at least 400 incoming students over the next decade — 20 a year at each school — full-ride scholarships.

>> RELATED | Amid Atlanta protests comes $120 million for black colleges 

They’re giving another $40 million to the United Negro College Fund, an organization that provides scholarships and other support to HBCUs.

“HBCUs have a tremendous record, yet are disadvantaged when it comes to giving,” the couple said in a statement. “Generally, White capital flows to predominantly White institutions, perpetuating capital isolation. We hope this additional $120 million donation will help more Black students follow their dreams and also encourage more people to support these institutions — helping to reverse generations of inequity in our country.”

Within the public and private sectors, HBCU endowments trail those at non-HBCUs by at least 70%, according to a report last year by the American Council on Education. That leaves many of the historically black colleges to rely more on state and federal funding along with tuition and fees, so fewer enrolled students mean fewer dollars the schools have to operate.

Signs point to the Atlanta University Center area along Martin Luther King Jr Drive before Northside Drive. 

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON/AJC

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON/AJC

Georgia’s HBCUs and their supporters are finding ways to soften the financial impact of the pandemic, which has already cost these smaller schools millions of dollars in refunds to students for housing and other costs when they were forced to leave the campuses in March. They’re moving forward with initiatives to increase revenues, such as Morehouse’s new computer coding bootcamp for adults.

Other approaches involving Congress face greater hurdles. The UNCF, and 19 Democratic and independent U.S. senators, have asked Congress to increase the maximum annual Pell Grant, currently $6,345, which helps low-income students pay for college, and double it over the next 10 years. About 40% of U.S. college students receive Pell Grants. At Georgia’s HBCUs, the percentages are higher, ranging from 47% at Spelman to 76% at Savannah State University, federal data shows.

>> READ | AJC series on the health of HBCUs

They also want Congress to pass the HEROES Act, which would give money to states to ease their budget shortfalls as many states, including Georgia, consider higher education funding cuts. Three of Georgia's HBCUs — Albany State, Fort Valley and Savannah State universities — are public institutions and receive much of their funding from the state.

“HBCUs need specialized attention, to some degree, because of their specialized mission,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, a Fort Valley State graduate who chairs its alumni foundation and serves on the state House’s Higher Education Committee.

White House officials, though, have said the president plans to veto the HEROES Act if it passes the Senate. U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the bill “is packed full of liberal priorities parading under the guise of coronavirus response aid.” She was critical of proposals in the bill, such as additional funding for the U.S. Postal Service. Loeffler called that idea a bailout.

“We need productive, bipartisan solutions to revive our economy and get Americans back to work as safely as possible,” she said.

Funding challenges

Georgia is home to nine accredited HBCUs, with a combined 22,000 students. These schools, like colleges and universities nationwide, have been hurt financially by the pandemic. Morehouse last month announced about a dozen employees will lose their jobs and others will be furloughed as they anticipate a 25% enrollment decline.

Albany State University, one of Georgia’s public historically black universities

Georgia’s three public HBCUs have each drawn up budget reduction plans, upon orders by state lawmakers for all Georgia agencies to cut spending because of revenue declines caused by the pandemic. Spelman is exploring several options, which they said may include furloughs.

The pandemic has severely impacted African American communities, with statistics showing blacks having higher infection and death rates from COVID-19. Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell said college educations will be important to helping black communities recover from the health and financial challenges created by the pandemic.

“It is imperative that as a country we are taking steps to make sure that our communities remain strong and competitive because we have been on the front lines of battling this public health crisis and I think it’s important that we continue to make higher education affordable and accessible for our community,” she said.

>> READ| Southern Co. commits $50 million to historically black colleges

HBCUs across the country are worried about the financial impact of the pandemic this fall, particularly if they cannot have students on campus. The concerns even stretch to football programs, which generate more than $200 million a year, according to some reports, that help fund academic programs at many schools. If health concerns mean schools are unable to field teams or athletic schedules are limited, that revenue will be in jeopardy.

>> RELATED | Morehouse cancels fall sports due to COVID-19

Many HBCUs, including six in Georgia, were founded in the late 19th century at a time when most colleges would not enroll black students. Today, there are about 100 accredited HBCUs nationwide.

On average, it costs less to attend a HBCU. The average cost of tuition and fees for an in-state student to attend a public, four-year HBCU is about $7,575, an AJC analysis of federal government data found. That’s about 70% of what the College Board says is the average cost ($10,440) for all public U.S. colleges and universities. The average cost of tuition and fees at a four-year private HBCU is about $15,740, less than 45% of the average cost of all private U.S. colleges and universities, $36,880.

More HBCU students, though, come from lower-income households and have trouble affording college, statistics show. All three undergraduate Atlanta HBCUs created emergency funds for students in the early days of the pandemic, so the need for extra federal support is great, they say.

“It would be a huge boost,” Campbell said of doubling maximum Pell Grants.

Springfield High School students Imani Fudge, left, and Nija Brown talk with Shannon Moore from Spelman College Friday during the HBCU Day at the school. 

Loeffler and Georgia’s senior U.S. senator, David Perdue, also a Republican, did not address the Pell Grant proposal in emails to the AJC.

They focused on their support for a bill that became law in March, the CARES Act, that provided $6 billion to all colleges and $28.5 million to Georgia’s HBCUs.

They were among five Republican senators who co-signed a letter Wednesday to Senate Republican leaders urging Congress "to identify opportunities to ensure that HBCUs have a seat at the table as we seek to better understand COVID-19 and other biomedical challenges, along with their varied impacts."

Finding new revenue streams

Top administrators at Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman have met weekly since the pandemic began to discuss operations and ways to work together more efficiently. For example, a team is reviewing savings on information technology through joint services, said Todd Greene, executive director of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, the umbrella group of the schools. The schools plan to do more virtual learning courses, which can broaden their reach, attracting students far beyond their enrollment and city base.

>> Morehouse College announces budget cuts

In May, Morehouse began an online coding bootcamp. About 300 students applied, and 27 are in the class, which meets daily. Many of the coding students reside outside Georgia. The 12-week course costs $15,500, and students who cannot afford it can agree to pay the costs through a portion of their future job earnings. Students who successfully complete the program receive certificates with hopes of getting new or higher-paying jobs.

During a recent morning session, the students studied JavaScript.

“This is us dipping our toe in the waters of professional studies,” explained Kinnis Gosha, the college’s chair of its division of Experiential Learning and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Rodney Sampson, chairman & CEO of OHUB, speaks to students online during an online coding bootcamp created by Morehouse College at Morehouse College on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. It’s the kind of class that can help HBCUs generate revenue. 

Spelman leaders are also planning to offer more online certificate courses, possibly by January, Campbell said. The college, which has about 2,200 students, received approximately 9,000 applications for the 2020-21 school year, a 6% increase from the prior year. The college, like others, is debating how to hold classes this fall. About three-quarters of its students live outside Georgia.

Clark Atlanta is also seeing higher application numbers, but it’s also anticipating an enrollment decline of at least 10%. The school is considering several in-person teaching plans, which include ending the fall semester by Thanksgiving. Its president, George T. French Jr., was part of the CARES Act negotiations and is grateful for the support. Clark Atlanta received about $6 million, according to federal data. Yet, he’s focused on pursuing more federal dollars for epidemiology and virus research, potentially partnering with Morehouse School of Medicine.

“Our schools have to be focused on research and development because that’s where the money is going to be coming down from,” French said.

He’s optimistic that his school and others will come through the pandemic in good shape.

“I say we’re going to be stronger and be more resilient than ever,” he said.

Stockbridge resident Sanaya Alexander, 17, plans to attend Fort Valley State University this fall and hopes to study animal science. 

Jordan, the incoming Clark Atlanta student, said current students have already welcomed her to the school. A fellow Stockbridge Youth Council member, Sanaya Alexander, 17, said she also feels a connection to the school she plans to attend, Fort Valley State.

They’re both hopeful for in-person instruction this fall but will do virtual learning if necessary.

“Even though I want to get the full experience, it’s just the thought of knowing I’m attending a HBCU that gives me joy about it,” said Alexander, who hopes to become a veterinarian.

HBCU costs 

Public tuition: $7,575

Private tuition: $15,738

Public total costs: $19,705

Private total costs: $29,473

Students receiving Pell Grants

Albany State: 58%

Clark Atlanta: 58%

Fort Valley State: 65%

Morehouse: 48%

Paine: 60.5%

Savannah State: 76%

Spelman: 47%

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Enrollment

Albany State University: 6,122

Clark Atlanta University: 3,911

Savannah State University: 3,688

Fort Valley State University: 2,624

Morehouse College: 2,206

Spelman College: 2,171

Morehouse School of Medicine: 542

Paine College: 469

Interdenominational Theological Center: 293

Sources: National Center for Education Statistics, University System of Georgia

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