The downturn in the economy that has forced cutbacks at some of the nation's richest colleges is endangering the very survival of some of the poorest, including several long-struggling historically black colleges and universities. But alumni, professors, and outside analysts say that the better-funded HBCUs' long experience weathering hard times and helping students whom other schools have shut out could make them increasingly attractive.
"HBCUs have survived worse things than this, like the Civil War," notes Ketema N. Paul, assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the Morehouse School of Medicine and a graduate of Howard University. The top HBCUs are attempting to prove they offer an education that rivals that of better-known universities, often at a lower price.
Their pitch could prove especially attractive these days to students of all races. HBCUs' traditional students, African-Americans, are flocking to colleges in record numbers; today, 2 million plus are in college, more than double the number of 30 years ago. The Obama presidency is expected to inspire even greater interest in higher education among the minority youngsters who make up the fastest-growing part of the college-age population. And a growing number of white students are enrolling in HBCUs. At several HBCUs, in fact, the majority of the student body is now white.
No shortage of applicants. Some HBCUs, including Harris-Stowe State in St. Louis and Prairie View A&M in Texas, have seen applications skyrocket in 2009, in part because they are low-cost public universities.
Others, such as Xavier University of Louisiana, are recruiting based on their track records of turning disadvantaged kids into stars. Xavier boasts that it sends more African-Americans to medical school than any other college in the nation. It manages to do this while charging about $25,000 for everything—tuition, fees, room, board, books, transportation, and so on. While that may sound high, many big public universities—in California, for example—have similar sticker prices for in-state students. Also, over half of all Xavier students receive grants averaging more than $5,000, bringing their net cost below $20,000.
HBCU grads often rave about a family feeling on campus, supportive professors, and lifelong friendships. Today, more than two decades after he got his bachelor's from Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala., Milton L. Brown, endowed chair of experimental therapeutics and professor of oncology at Georgetown University, is still in weekly or monthly contact with 40 or 50 college pals. "There was a network of people who really cared about me," he says.
Four questions to ask. But students and grads warn anyone considering an HBCU to temper their idealism with hard facts and tough questions:
Will you graduate? Many HBCUs have comparatively low graduation rates. Since dropping out of college is one of the most costly mistakes a student can make, it pays to check out the graduation rate for students who match your characteristics at the Education Trust . Subscribers to U.S. News's Premium Online Edition can also research college graduation rates.
Those who do may be surprised: There are dramatic variations among HBCUs. Fewer than 20 percent of students at Coppin State in Maryland manage to graduate within six years, but nearby Morgan State graduates almost 40 percent. What's more, some larger majority-white schools, such as Temple University in Philadelphia, graduate a higher percentage of their minority students (56 percent of African-Americans and 49 percent of Hispanics) than do many HBCUs. Brown suggests asking what support systems—financial, mentoring, and educational—exist to help students.
Are you in the right program? Many HBCUs have long had less money to spend on each student than have comparable majority-white schools. Less money typically means larger classes, fewer services, and lower-paid faculty and sometimes means unsatisfactory educations. Howard University nursing students, for example, picketed the campus last fall to draw attention to their concerns about the level of instruction. HBCU students recommend aiming at schools that specialize in your area of focus. Howard's business program, for example, is well respected. Hampton, Norfolk State, and Xavier have all invested in science labs.
What's the net cost? Dozens of elite schools such as Harvard are eagerly recruiting ace students of color and providing free or nearly free rides to students of all races from families with incomes below $60,000. Meanwhile, most HBCUs simply can't afford to provide as many scholarships as richer majority-white schools, so HBCUs can end up costing their students more. But Corey Briscoe, a junior and student government officer at Howard, says he doesn't regret turning down opportunities at George Washington University and the Citadel. "Sometimes, you've got to look beyond the price and look at what you are going to get. I met Barack Obama my freshman year," he says—an experience he doubts he would have gotten anywhere else.
Is the school accredited? Taking a chance on a struggling college can be risky. Clark-Atlanta University got into such a bind that it laid off dozens of teachers in the middle of the semester this spring, creating havoc with schedules and course loads. Several HBCUs, such as Morris Brown in Atlanta and Knoxville College in Tennessee, have lost their accreditation altogether, which means the federal government won't give students financial aid and other colleges won't accept transfer credits. Alabama A&M, Texas Southern, and Dillard have all been put on probation or warned recently by their accrediting agencies. The federal Department of Education tracks school accreditation, and two of the major accreditors of HBCUs—the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education—post notices about warnings on their websites.
Changing times. There are surprising racial and cultural variations among HBCUs. The H, after all, stands for historically black—not necessarily currently black. Today, for example, 86 percent of the students at Bluefield State in West Virginia are white and live in the state. At Howard, by contrast, about two thirds of the students are African-American, and most come from distant states or countries. Some schools, notably Spelman (for women) and Morehouse (for men), are single sex.
Many HBCUs are making special efforts to recruit Hispanic students, international students, and, in many cases, white Americans. Joshua Packwood, who in 2008 was the first white valedictorian of Morehouse, says HBCUs aren't right for all white students nor for all black students. But Packwood says Morehouse was a great fit for him. "I was elected president of my freshman dorm," he says. "People were extremely supportive."
The recession hasn't hit Morehouse as hard as it has hit other colleges because its endowment is small. Long used to working on a tight budget, schools like Morehouse hire faculty who "are not there for the paycheck but believe in the school," Packwood says.
Packwood started studying economics when times were good; he's graduating in the midst of a recession. But four years at an often overlooked institution accustomed to doing more with less was a perfect preparation for Packwood's first job. He's been hired to help an investment bank find opportunities that have been overlooked.
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