Morehouse College changes raise costs, criticism

The cost of attending Atlanta’s historically black Morehouse College has increased by more than $10,000 a year for some students.

The all-male college is requiring its 2,100 students to live on campus at least three years – not just freshmen, as had been its tradition.

That guarantees Morehouse, which is rebounding from several years of enrollment and cash flow declines, about $13,000 in mandatory room and board fees from each sophomore and junior, over and above tuition and student fees running about $26,700 per year per student.

Cathy Tyler, executive director of strategic communications for Morehouse, says the college gave students a heads-up about the change when they were freshmen and saw no backlash as it was put in place for the Class of 2017.

But the policy is being criticized in an online petition calling for the ouster of Morehouse President John S. Wilson Jr. and his senior leadership team.

The petition, which was launched Oct. 1, says requiring students to live on campus through their junior year is "unethical" and places "the school's financial burdens on the backs of parents and students."

Prices for some nearby apartments range from about $650 a month for two bedrooms to about $1,300 for three, which does not include board.

The petition makes multiple claims, including that Wilson has alienated alumni and presided during the firing, removal or departure of 100-plus faculty and staff, a charge the administration denies.

In 2013, Wilson announced that a financial crisis was forcing Morehouse to cut the college’s operating budget by $2.5 million and to eliminate or downgrade 75 jobs. He said faculty positions were not lost in the downsizing, a claim made by the petition organizers.

Tyler told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the decision to require students to live on campus for at least three years had nothing to do with finances.

Rather, she said, the administration believes on-campus living will ensure close student interaction critical to the “Morehouse mystique.”

“It was implemented because we were losing the very concept that has made Morehouse unique,” Tyler said. “Our ability to create a selective and engaged community has traditionally been the secret sauce that has shaped the ‘Morehouse Mystique’.”

Ryan C. George, a senior and vice president of Morehouse’s Student Government Association, applauds the policy.

“I feel like I would not be vice president, and I would not have had what we know to be the Morehouse experience — the true Morehouse experience — if we didn’t live on campus,” George, a political science major graduating next May, said.

He said “there’s no way to be transformed into a true Morehouse man by coming to campus and leaving after classes.

“The Morehouse experience is about things you do outside of class as well,” George said. “It’s about being well-rounded.”

But sophomore Philip Rucker says not everyone agrees.

“A lot of people do not like it,” said Rucker, an Atlanta native majoring in computer science. “I’ve heard people talk about trying to find different ways around it.”

He lived on campus in his freshman year, but was able to make the case for an exemption this year due to financial hardship. He’s now living 20-25 minutes from campus with family, he said.

Hardship exemptions are available on a case-by-case basis, Tyler said.

Organizers of the petition drive chose to remain anonymous and declined to discuss their drive. The third-party website where the petition was showed last week that it had garnered about 360 signatures.

Responses to the petition have come from Robert C. Davidson, chairman of the Morehouse College Board of Trustees, Howard C. Willis, president of the college’s national alumni association, and Wilson.

Davidson and Willis declared that Wilson has their full support. Wilson “shares our passionate dedication to the continued progress and growth of this great institution,” the two said in a joint statement.

Wilson said the petition includes a “number of false and misleading statements,” as well as unrealistic expectations.

“Seven years of enrollment and cash declines cannot be reversed in three years,” he said.

What is needed, Wilson said, is “time and support, not misinformation.”

Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, said the policy requiring students to live on campus three years is not unusual.

“Many, many colleges require on-campus living through the junior year,” Gasman said. “There are financial gains but also community gains as having students live on campus enriches campus culture.”

The finances of the nation's 105 HBCUs are a mixed bag, Gasman said.

“Many of them are very strong, while others struggle with leadership and financial issues,” she said.

“Morehouse has some financial issues, but is a very strong institution” with a “superb reputation and a brand appeal,” Gasman said.

Morehouse, the nation’s only all-male historically black college, had 2,439 undergraduates in 2011. After declines, enrollment has stabilized at 2,100, Tyler said.

A report to the federal government in 2015 showed Morehouse with a 12-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio.

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