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Historically Black colleges finally get the spotlight

Morehouse College's campus in Atlanta on May 21, 2019.DUSTIN CHAMBERS/NYT

Historically Black colleges and universities are having a moment, one that many educators say is more than a century overdue.

It may have started with the new vice president, Kamala Harris, who has celebrated her roots at Howard University, calling it “a place that shaped her.” Howard, in Washington, also recently announced a string of high-profile hirings, including writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones and actor Phylicia Rashad, who was appointed dean of the fine arts program.

Athletic programs are landing top recruits and making big-name hires. Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., recently announced that Reggie Theus, the former Chicago Bulls guard, has become its athletic director.


And money is pouring in. Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott has given more than $500 million to more than 20 historically Black colleges in the past year. Google, TikTok, and Reed Hastings, co-chief executive of Netflix, have given $180 million more. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill delivered more than $5 billion in pandemic rescue funding, which included erasing $1.6 billion in debt for 45 institutions.

The donations, hirings, and government money seem to signal a belated epiphany, a sudden recognition of the importance of the nation’s 100 historically Black colleges, which have educated Black Americans when other institutions openly or subtly would not.

“We’ve been here since 1865,” said George T. French Jr., president of Clark Atlanta University. But it is only now, he said, that he can reel off the names of donors who have contacted him.

He often asks donors, “Why am I just getting a call from you right now?”

Their answer, he said: “ ‘We were disturbed by what happened with George Floyd and other atrocities. And we want to do our part — to say we’re sorry.’ ”

But for some historically Black colleges, the future remains worrisome. Although the better-known institutions — including Howard, and Morehouse and Spelman colleges — are not in danger, other colleges, many of them small and rural, have been hit by declining enrollments and budgets. At least six have closed in the past 20 years, and by several metrics, more than a handful of Black colleges are regarded as endangered.


The issues are partly demographic: There are fewer high school graduates, and Black students have been lured to other institutions with larger endowments and financial aid budgets. Even before the pandemic, enrollment at historically Black institutions had dropped to its lowest point since 2001, a rate of decline recently estimated at 1.4 percent a year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Most Black colleges and universities were formed during the 19th century to educate people freed from slavery. Some students literally had to build their schools: At Tuskegee University in Alabama, they dug the clay and molded and fired the bricks used to construct their campus.

The schools became centers of scholarship and intellectualism, turning out most of the nation’s Black doctors, teachers, and judges and boasting alumni such as Martin Luther King Jr., filmmaker Spike Lee, writer Toni Morrison, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democratic senator from Georgia.

The more established colleges have used the new money to build on their legacies. Spelman and Morehouse, both in Atlanta, and Hampton University in Hampton, Va., have started entrepreneurship programs, for instance. And Howard in particular has been able to lure talented faculty members who might otherwise have gone elsewhere.


Some historically Black institutions have abysmally low graduation and retention rates, a problem that some experts say is not surprising, given the economic backgrounds of their students. Many are the first in their families to attend college, and more than 60 percent receive federal Pell grants designed for low-income students.

“The need and support that’s required to serve those students is not accounted for,” said Brent Chrite, the former president of Bethune-Cookman, who in 2020 successfully lobbied the state of Florida for more money.

Historically Black public universities have faced funding shortfalls as state governments have been more generous with their white-majority counterparts. But some lawmakers — frequently pointing to low graduation rates — have suggested that some of these colleges merge with majority-white institutions or close.

“Their problems are not different from what’s facing a lot of the small, private, predominantly white colleges,” said Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But when it comes to HBCUs, it is really hard to untangle whether they should close versus whether people want them to close.”

Chrite, now president at Bentley University in Waltham, suggests that some colleges consolidate operations and share services, like technology management or human resources, with other institutions.

And historically Black colleges need to do some reaching out. Many prospective students are simply not aware of the institutions, said Johnny C. Taylor, former president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents the 47 publicly funded Black colleges and universities.


“The average person, a non-HBCU graduate, even if that person were Black, didn’t even know what they were,” said Taylor, who served as chairman of former president Donald Trump’s advisory board on HBCUs and credits the former president with raising the schools’ visibility.

Some students have chosen historically Black colleges, despite the drawbacks. Two years ago, Zakiyyah Carter, who grew up in Orange, N.J., transferred from New York Institute of Technology to Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

Formed in 1837, Cheyney is the country’s oldest historically Black college, with an enrollment of about 600. But it has struggled financially and is designated for heightened financial oversight by the Education Department. While more than 60 percent of college students graduate within six years, Cheyney’s rate is 27 percent, according to federal statistics. Carter, 23, describes frustrations at Cheyney. Classes were sometimes unavailable, and phone calls did not always get answered. Yet, she said, the experience was transformational.

“Just the pride that you have coming from an HBCU can push you to do a lot of great things,” said Carter, who graduated this year and is working for mortgage guarantor Freddie Mac, a job she landed through a program sponsored by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

In a statement, the college said it is completing a turnaround and has balanced its budget for three consecutive years.

Another small institution that was once regarded as struggling, Paul Quinn College in Dallas, has undergone a renaissance of sorts through innovation. The president, Michael Sorrell, turned Paul Quinn into a work college, meaning that all students have campus jobs and are graded on their performance. He abolished the football team, planting an organic garden on the playing field.


Sorrell solicited help from private donors, including Texas businessman Trammell S. Crow and the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. But he said that much of the recent corporate generosity had bypassed the smallest historically Black colleges.

“The corporate funding is more targeted toward a small group of schools,” Sorrell said. “We don’t see people backing up the truck saying, ‘Here’s $10 million for you.’ ”

More help may be coming. President Joe Biden is pushing a proposal to direct $39 billion to historically Black colleges to subsidize tuition. And Representative Alma S. Adams, a North Carolina Democrat and founder of the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, has rounded up more than 100 co-sponsors for legislation to renovate and repair the campuses.