Why Black Colleges Might Be the Best Bargains

The recession has hit some campuses hard but also is opening opportunities for students of all races.

Students gather outside the student union at Winston-Salem State University.
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If it weren't for the recession, these could be the best of times for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The number of African-American students attending college has been steadily rising, doubling in the past 30 years to almost 2 million. Thanks to the historic election of President Barack Obama, all signs point to even greater interest in higher education among the minority youngsters who make up the fastest-growing part of the college-age population. And the top HBCUs are boosting their facilities, staff, and outreach to prove they offer an education—especially for low-income students—that rivals that of better-known universities, often at a lower price.

Unfortunately, the downturn in the economy, combined with a long, painful history of underfunding, might outweigh those bright prospects for some HBCUs. Clark Atlanta University announced layoffs of 70 faculty members plus 30 staff members early this month and had to scramble to reassign students and classes. Morris Brown College in Atlanta has lost its accreditation and most of its students and is threatened with closure. The Georgia state legislature, looking to cut costs, is studying proposals to merge Savannah State and Atlantic State universities, two financially struggling HBCUs, with nearby historically white colleges. Education analysts say that unless the economy picks up soon or the federal government comes to their rescue, several rural, low-endowment niche schools—a group that includes several HBCUs as well as some women's and religious colleges—will run out of money and shut down.

"HBCUs have survived worse things than this, like the Civil War," notes Ketema Paul, assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the Morehouse School of Medicine and a graduate of Howard University. The top HBCUs' long experiences weathering hard times and helping students other schools have shut out could give those black colleges that survive a chance to emerge stronger than ever, believe insiders like Paul.

But that survival won't be easy.

Almost all state governments are slashing their higher-education budgets. That's especially painful for HBCUs. Although some states are finally making catch-up payments to some black colleges to compensate for decades of underfunding, many HBCUs still get less taxpayer support than their white counterparts, says James Minor, a Michigan State University expert on HBCUs. In North Carolina, for example, North Carolina State University received more than $18,000 per student this year, while Fayetteville State University, an HBCU, got less than $10,000. (A spokeswoman for the University of North Carolina system says that NCSU got more because it has more expensive research programs, such as engineering, and that other majority-white campuses, such as UNC-Wilmington, got less per student than Fayetteville State and other HBCUs.)

HBCU students are also facing financial difficulties. Minorities are often the first to feel the brunt of layoffs and tend to have less of a financial cushion against hard times, reducing their ability to pay tuition bills, let alone make donations. Spelman College, ranked as the No.1 HBCU by U.S. News & World Report, says hundreds of students might have to leave because their families can no longer afford to pay tuition bills. Meanwhile, college endowments are plunging, shrinking the supply of scholarship dollars even as demand rises. The United Negro College Fund, which raises money to fund operations at 39 private HBCUs and oversees hundreds of scholarships, says its usual $5 million a year in endowment profits completely dried up in 2008, and the average size of donations has shrunk during the recession. That most likely means less money for schools and students in 2009. "This is going to be a really tough time for low-income students. And it is going to get tougher," says UNCF President Michael Lomax.

Adding to the challenge: Societal desegregation and improvements to financial aid packages by wealthy and historically white schools are luring many top African-American students away from HBCUs to elite private colleges and increasingly diverse state universities. While the number of African-Americans in college has risen by about 1 million in the past 30 years, almost all of the students in that increase have gone to low-cost community colleges or wealthier, majority-white schools. Some of the top universities, such as Columbia and Cornell, now accept hundreds of black freshmen each year. Enrollment in the 100 or so HBCUs has risen by only about 70,000 since the mid-1980s to about 270,000.