Two years ago, Amelia Smith received the one thing she thought she always wanted – a blue envelope from Spelman College. She had been accepted to what many consider the finest black college in America.
Her grandmother went to Spelman. So did her mother. And her aunt. And her sister, who’s a senior there now. So Smith wasn’t surprised when she was accepted, too.
She is just wrapping up her sophomore year. But not at Spelman. She’s studying biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech.
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“I am kind of the black sheep in the family,” Smith said. “When I got accepted into Tech, I felt very proud of myself. My grandmother (a dean at Fort Valley State University) was very proud of me. She said if she had had the opportunity to go to Tech when she was choosing a college, she would have gone. But she never got that chance.”
Amelia Smith’s good fortune is Spelman College’s loss. She is a talented and highly coveted black student who had her pick of any college she could get into and afford. But that hard-won freedom comes at a price for historically black colleges and universities. Predominantly white schools are picking off some of black colleges’ best prospects. Fifty years ago, 90 percent of all black college students went to black colleges. Today, 90 percent of black students are at mostly white schools.
Spelman is one of the richest and most highly regarded of the 101 accredited HBCUs. As are Howard University in Washington and Morehouse College in Atlanta. They are not in danger because of choices like the one Smith made. But many HBCUs are.
The AJC analyzed key data measures that relate to the health and stability of 101 schools — among them, enrollment, graduation rates, student retention and core revenue. The newspaper found the usual stars in the HBCU firmament — but also some troubled institutions that have struggled for years.
Tiny Paine College in Augusta has lost 46 percent of its enrollment since 2010, and two-thirds of Paine’s freshman class in 2015 didn’t come back for sophomore year. Meanwhile, the oldest HBCU in America, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, lost 55 percent of its enrollment during that period. Its six-year graduation rate in 2015? Seventeen percent. At South Carolina State University, enrollment declined 30 percent and core revenue 27 percent.
Colleges can’t sustain those kinds of numbers for long — evident in the fact that at least six HBCUs have closed since 1988 and at least two (including one in Atlanta) are now colleges in name only.
Some college finance experts predict that dozens of HBCUs will disappear in the next 20 years.
“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.
Taylor believes as many as one-quarter of HBCUs will not survive the next two decades.
Professors, students have a special bond
It is a brisk Wednesday morning on the Morehouse campus, and Darian Nwankwo has a problem.
He catches up with his philosophy professor, Illya Davis, as Davis hurries to the second of three classes he’ll teach that day.
In a nutshell: Nwankwo wants to go to his fraternity convention in Macon on that Friday. But he has also missed his allotted number of Davis’ classes; plus, he has a paper due that he must personally hand in. Davis keeps pushing back on what Nwankwo needs to do. He doesn’t give his student permission to skip class. Nor does he deny it.
“I am going to continue to ask you questions until you figure out the answer yourself,” Davis said.
Nwankwo stops for a moment and looks at the sky. He seems half-frustrated and half-reflective. He says he will figure it out. They give each other a fist pound and go their separate ways.
“I tell my students that their success or failure is a reflection on me, and what happens in these conversations, on this campus, will not happen again when you leave here,” Davis said later. “And I am trying to get them to understand … that kind of question should never have to come up again, because they should already know the answer.”
Such is life at Morehouse. The Atlanta college is so highly regarded in large part because it holds the distinction of being the only all-male HBCU, whose graduates include Martin Luther King Jr. and Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor. But there is also the unique personal relationships that professors like Davis have with their students. Those relationships recall Benjamin Mays’ mentorship of a young King, whom Mays recruited to Morehouse when King was only 14.
Building the black middle class
From Mays to King to Oprah to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, HBCUs have educated countless black doctors, lawyers, theologians, entrepreneurs, journalists, teachers, entertainers and politicians.
Nine of the 101 accredited HBCUs are in Georgia, and five of them are in the same neighborhood in Atlanta, giving the city the densest concentration of black colleges in America.
At least six northern HBCUs were founded before the Civil War. Morehouse, founded in 1867, was one of nine black colleges that celebrated their 150th birthday in 2017.
Enrollment rose to its zenith, about 325,000, in 2010, the year after Barack Obama became president.
But today, the tide that brought so many African-Americans into America’s middle class seems to be shifting. In the five years following that 2010 spike, enrollment declined by 10 percent — compared to the 4 percent drop for all colleges during that period, federal data shows.
Some schools are reporting enrollment gains this year. Between 2010 and 2015, however, 20 black colleges saw enrollment plummet by more than 25 percent; only 22 black colleges saw increases during that time.
Smith, the Georgia Tech student, said both academics and finances played a role in her not following her family to Spelman.
Spelman, one of only two all-female HBCUs in America and, according to many agencies who track it, the top-ranked black college in the country simply didn’t have what Smith wanted to major in. She balked at the idea of doing a dual degree in biomedical engineering at Spelman and Tech, because it would have taken her at least five years to graduate.
“Georgia Tech is the number one public school in Georgia, it is a top 10 engineering school, and it is the best biomedical engineering program in the country,” Smith said. “Undeniably, it is a good school for what I want to do.”
Smith also received several lucrative scholarships from Georgia Tech and is essentially attending the school for free, which was not on the table at Spelman.
“Money was not an issue, but you never want to place that burden on your family,” Smith said.
Competition with majority-white schools
In 2015, author and University of Missouri journalism professor Ron Stodghill wrote “Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture.” He theorized in the book that by “the year 2035 the number of HBCUs will be down to 35 and only 15 of those will be thriving.”
Some scoff at such dire predictions, but it is not hard to find trouble spots.
In Georgia, for example, Fort Valley State and Savannah State graduate fewer than 30 percent of their freshmen within six years. That is the case at more than half of HBCUs; the six-year graduation rate for all U.S. colleges is 59 percent.
A lot of students arrive at black colleges unprepared academically or financially. Even more than 150 years after HBCUs started, many freshmen are still first-generation college students, and more than 70 percent of students receive some kind of federal financial aid.
“A lot of times students come in on a bubble academically, and they come in on a bubble financially,” Stodghill said. “Then the perfect storm hits them sophomore year and they gotta leave with debt and can’t get their transcript to go to a community college, because they can’t pay the bill.”
State funding cuts, financial aid changes
Poor financial decisions put some HBCUs on the list. One wrong move Paine College made, its new president said, was restarting a football program in 2012 that lasted one full season. Paine is in a legal battle to keep its accreditation because of such mistakes.
Most HBCUs have never had large budgets, and the problem has become worse for many. In recent years:
- States have cut funding to three out of four public HBCUs since the recession. Louisiana’s funding to Grambling State University, for example, was cut in half in a recent eight-year stretch.
- The Obama administration tightened credit requirements on federal student loans in 2012. Suddenly, applicants for so-called PLUS loans were turned down by the thousands, taking a deep slice of enrollment out of dozens of HBCUs. After a loud outcry from students, parents, colleges and lawmakers, the changes were rescinded in 2015.
- HBCUs have long struggled to attract money from major foundations or donors. Bill and Camille Cosby’s $25 million gift to Spelman in 1988 is believed to be the largest donation to an HBCU. “That was 30 years ago,” Dillard University president Walter Kimbrough said. “That’s ridiculous.”
HBCUs have also looked inward at another longstanding problem: the lack of alumni support. Barely one in 10 graduates gave money back to their college, U.S. News & World Report reported. At Princeton, the most recent alumni giving rate was more than 60 percent, U.S. News said. At Morehouse, about 20 percent of alumni donate to the school.
Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., appears to be the leader. In 2016, more than 52 percent of its graduates gave donations totaling more than $1 million to the school. The year before, only 50 percent gave, but they gave $1.4 million.
‘You have to do it yourself’
The country’s first three black colleges — Cheyney, Lincoln and Wilberforce — were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio to give free blacks and former slaves the fundamental right that had been considered too dangerous for them to have: an education.
“When you think about the students we serve, this is the first time that they are the center and focus of the academic experience, and that is power,” said William Fisher, who runs the U.S. Education Department’s HBCU Capital Financing Program.
Eric McGlothen, a freshman at Dillard University in New Orleans and a 2017 graduate of Atlanta’s Grady High School, feels that power. McGlothen is one of three Dillard freshmen from Atlanta. He said they quickly bonded and also rallied around the school’s president, Walter Kimbrough, an Atlanta native and a graduate of Mays High School.
“My dad went to Morehouse and my mom went to Spelman. But I wanted my independence,” said McGlothen. “This is the perfect place for me, because it really is like a family out here. It is small, but there is so much culture here.”
Damon Bellmon is on his own for the first time as a junior at tiny Wiley College, about 150 miles east of Dallas. He dropped out of Georgia State University in 2011 to pursue dancing and acting, appearing on two seasons of “So You Think You Can Dance,” and in the motion picture “Birth of a Nation.”
“My mom jokes about the HBCU experience and what that means as a whole and what that comes down to learning to get things done yourself,” Bellmon said. “If you want something done, you have to do it yourself. It teaches you persistence and how to deal with frustration. It prepares you for the real world. So when you get out there, you know how to grind. That is what the HBCU experience boils down to.”
Georgia State’s outreach to minority students
If HBCUs were founded because black students had no other place to go, they began to suffer when white schools started admitting black students.
“HBCUs were caught a little off-guard by majority institutions when they integrated, swooped down and took the cream of the crop and then walked away,” said Claflin President Henry Tisdale. “Somehow, we had conceded that we couldn’t compete. We said, ‘Let them get the best and we will take what is remaining.’”
The challenges facing HBCUs are embodied in a school in downtown Atlanta. Georgia State University, which is not an HBCU, graduated more black students in 2017 than any institution in the nation.
Many of those black Georgia State students are first-generation college students with low family incomes. Paul L. Jones, president of the HBCU Fort Valley State in Middle Georgia, says they remind him of himself.
Jones, in year two at Fort Valley State, was born in South Central Los Angeles and didn’t attend an HBCU. Some Fort Valley folks weren’t keen on hiring him, but he’s invested in the task and can become emotional talking about his students.
“I cannot fail them,” he said in a recent interview on campus.
Around for the next 100 years?
Jones and his team are like many HBCU administrators, trying to figure out what will work to help the college succeed. Part of their plan includes getting students involved in community service projects and leveraging successful academic programs — such as Fort Valley’s agricultural research curriculum — with other colleges and organizations.
Clark Atlanta University entered into an agreement with Georgia Piedmont Technical College last year: GPTC offers remedial courses for students with the goal of sending those students on to Clark. Some HBCUs, such as Tennessee State, are recruiting more international students. Morehouse’s new president says he wants to create more courses that fulfill part of the original mission of HBCUs: improving the lives of all African-Americans.
Racial disputes on some campuses, as well as Donald Trump’s presidency, have renewed interest in HBCUs this year.
“I knew that I wanted an HBCU experience where black people are constantly loving on you,” said Tahir Murray, 18, a Howard University freshman who grew up in Fayette County. “There are people here from from all over the United States and world, with different religions and backgrounds. And when we talk about race, we can have good, in-depth conversations. It is not just surface-level outrage.”
Experts say HBCUs must invest more money in technology to improve the financial aid submission process, a problem that frustrates countless students. Noting that half of all black college students are taking online courses at community colleges, these experts also say HBCUs need to step up with digital course offerings of their own.
“We have to ask ourselves what is the future for us?” said Jones, the president at Fort Valley. “What is it we have to do to ensure we are around for the next 100 years? We can be in the driver’s seat or the passenger’s seat. I want to be in the driver’s seat to ensure success.”
‘I fight for HBCUs like I go to one’
Amelia Smith’s blue Spelman envelope is somewhere in her parents’ home in Macon. She still marvels at how close she came to being a Spelmanite.
After she got accepted, she joined all of the required social media groups to meet her potential classmates and had already met the woman who was to be her roommate.
“Learning in an environment where everyone looks like you is special. It is not bad at Georgia Tech, but different,” Smith said. “My sister and best friend go to Spelman and I fight for HBCUs like I go to one. And I didn’t shun Spelman. I am still going to get an honorary degree from there one day and I plan on getting a building named for me.”
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