HBCUs' struggles partly result of progress in access


By Doug Gardner

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Attending Elizabeth City State University’s 12th annual Foundation Founders Day Gala last month gave me an appreciation for the role of historically black colleges and universities.

Vice Chancellor John Michael Lee and his development staff packed 400 people into the K.E. White Center for the event, raising more than $180,000 for foundation scholarships.

Speaker after speaker recounted the pivotal role that ECSU played in paving a way for their brighter future.

Justina and Joyce Long graduated in 1954, then saw 23 members of their extended family attend ECSU.

Longtime musical director Billy C. Hines brought three generations of his family, some from as far away as Alabama, plus a table full of church friends to the event to emphasize the effect ECSU had on his life.

Another alum recalled for me 1958 Freshman Week at the university when then President Walter Ridley warned her and her classmates not to venture into downtown Elizabeth City lest they inadvertently incur the hostility of white merchants. The ECSU campus was an island of safety and acceptance for black students in our community 60 years ago.

A lot has changed since then.

And that got me to wondering whether today's 20- and 30-something black undergrads will have the same warm affection for their college alma maters as the mostly older alumni who dominated this month's gala.

That is because Dr. Martin Luther King won the debate.

Young, black high school graduates can attend UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Duke, Yale and Harvard or any other, historically “white” college. They need not rely on an archipelago of 107 HBCUs stretching from Howard University on the East Coast to St. Phillips College in Texas.

To say that the HBCU model is struggling is to acknowledge this fact.

ECSU’s enrollment is in an upswing. Yet, seven years after it peaked at more than 3,000 students, the university struggles to attract just over half as many undergraduates. The university lagged only Cheyney State University of Pennsylvania among accredited HBCUs in the percentage of enrollment decline from 2010 to 2015, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report on black colleges.

Private HBCUs have fared even worse.

Bennett College in Greensboro lost its accreditation late last year. St. Augustine in Raleigh had its accreditation restored after two years on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. And Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte was recently removed from SACS probation after regaining financial stability.

HBCU enrollment peaked at 326,000 students in 2010, a year after President Barack Obama was inaugurated. Enrollment has declined since then. Tightened credit standards around the Parent Plus program the next year exacerbated the problem.

Fifty years ago, 90 percent of black college students attended HBCUs. Today the ratio is reversed, as majority white institutions pick off some of the ablest black high school graduates, according to the Atlanta paper's analysis. Six HBCUs have closed since 1988.

Non-elite women’s colleges, like Sweet Briar in Virginia and Mills College in California, also have struggled over the last decade as women have found their way into historically male bastions of higher education.

A major reason for the financial struggle of HBCUs is that only one in nine black undergraduates gives money to their alma mater, compared to 59 percent of Princeton graduates, according to Inside Philanthropy. The largest gift ever made to an HBCU was $37 million to Spelman College ... in 1992.

That's why the ECSU Gala, Viking Pride and the work of the ECSU Foundation are so vital to the university's viability, and our community.

Ultimately, we must acknowledge that progress has been made toward equal racial access to higher education in this country. ECSU grads played an important role in that progress.

The silver lining in all this is that the struggle of HBCUs is a nice problem to have.

Doug Gardner is a resident of the Weeksville section of Pasquotank County.