This column originally appeared in USC’s Daily Trojan on Feb. 19, 2014
As the nation continues to mark the achievements and contributions of African Americans in the celebration of Black History Month, the historically black colleges and universities that educated and fostered many legendary African Americans, such as civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, are struggling to maintain their financial stability. Since 2009, nine HBCUs have lost their accreditation or been put on probation for not meeting educational standards, according to a Ford Foundation study. Despite the economic difficulties, HBCUs should not lose relevance within the nation.
In the past 20 years, five HBCUs, which are institutions of higher learning founded with the mission to educate black Americans during times of legalized school segregation, have closed. The financial failings came after years of government funding being scaled back and administrative faults in budgeting, according to The New York Times.
The 2008 recession also took a particularly hard toll on the HBCU system because those institutions usually have smaller endowments and receive fewer private donations than other schools to begin with. The repercussions of the recession are still impacting the schools; last week, Howard University, one of the top-performing HBCUs, announced that it would be eliminating 200 staff positions by the end of the year.
As an unintended consequence of desegregation in the mid-20th century with rulings such as Brown vs. Board of Education in 1950, many top-performing black students opted to attend highly ranked universities outside of the HBCU system. Since then, the enrollment at most of the 105 HBCUs in the nation has seen a severe decline. At Fisk University in Nashville, TN for example, enrollment in the 1970s was at 1,500. This year, 645 students attend the university, according to The New York Times. In addition, only 3 percent of graduating high school seniors enrolled in HBCUs in 2013, resulting in fewer black students receiving degrees from HBCUs.
The struggle these colleges and universities are currently experiencing technically only affects 3 percent of all the country’s universities, but the impact of their closures will resonate nationwide. In the 21st century, HBCUs are reaping a greater diversity of students. Though black students make up 81 percent of HBCUs, the student body is also made of 11 percent white students, 3 percent Latino students and 1 percent Asian students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Therefore, if HBCUs failed to exist any longer in the United States, it could have a cross-cultural impact.
In addition, these colleges, which are largely concentrated in the South, are models of educational aspirations for communities that often have extremely limited access to education. Proximity of quality schools can help students succeed. Furthermore, the makeup of HBCUs will soon reflect the shifts in demographics of the U.S. to a majority of citizens coming from minority groups. With their rich history in cultural studies, these schools will be amply prepared to serve the needs of future generations.
Though HBCUs would benefit if they were funded through federal government funding and private donations from alums, this transition period for HBCUs could be a Renaissance moment. Previously regarded as a place for middle-class students to attend school, these southern colleges and universities can modernize their curriculum and make it applicable to the students around them. Currently, approximately 34 percent of the student body at HBCUs are low-income students. If HBCUs focus on educating lower-income students and providing them with skills that will serve their communities, then they will continue to serve their function by aiding underserved communities.
Despite HBCU’s lower enrollment numbers, their relevance — especially to the black community — remains high. USC, for example, maintains a yearly HBCU Exchange Program through which undergraduates can study at Howard or Spelman College for a semester. Directors at the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs said the exchange program offers students an opportunity to experience a school culture and climate that is different from one they are used to at USC.
HBCUs filled a void in educational opportunities when there were no other options for disenfranchised students of color. In the same way today, these colleges and universities that, once given the financial assistance to lift themselves, can continue to uplift communities lacking access to higher education. Because with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other greats as listed alums, HBCUs have a pretty good track record going for them.
Jordyn Holman is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Making the Grade,” runs Wednesdays.