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HBCUs Struggling to Keep Up

Dorothy Rowley | 11/15/2013, 11:40 a.m.
The president of the D.C.-based Thurgood Marshall College Fund said recently that historically black colleges and universities are feeling the ...
Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund in D.C., said HBCUs are laying off faculty and staff and eliminating student work study programs. (Courtesy photo)

The president of the D.C.-based Thurgood Marshall College Fund said recently that historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) are feeling the effects of underfunding, but are getting serious about resolving those issues.

In doing so, the 106 schools — which the University of the District of Columbia and Howard University — can help keep their doors open.

"They're struggling and many are teetering on closing their doors," the president, Johnny Taylor, told NewsOne's Roland Martin about a crisis causing many of the nation's 104 HBCUs to lose millions of dollars.

"The reality is we are sending students home, we're laying off faculty … so we're impacting the markets and communities in which these schools exist and thrive or should be thriving," Taylor said. "So it's a real issue."

Asked about how college officials are dealing with the financial losses, Taylor said they're tightening spending in all areas.

"They're laying off," he said. "They're getting rid of work study [programs that have] helped many of us get through college."

Taylor said that the U.S. Department of Education has yet to fully grasp the severity of the schools' financial woes.

"They're closing libraries early and reducing operating hours and student services functions," he said.

Among HBCUs that have closed recently are Morris Brown College in Atlanta, which was $35 million in debt at the time of its closure in 2012, and St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va., which had only 111 students enrolled when it closed in June. Like the majority of HBCUs, both schools had been in existence for more than 100 years.

In April, Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, a member of Howard University's Board of Trustees, warned in a letter to her fellow trustees that the university could possibly be shuttered by 2016.

But Marybeth Gasman, an education policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied HBCUs at length, said the situation isn't as bad as it's made out to be. In a recent interview, she alluded to a newspaper article surrounding Howard University's plight, but said that HBCUs routinely find themselves at a crossroads every few years.

In reviewing 300 articles on HBCUs from 2000 to 2003, Gasman found most of what was written was generally negative, despite many of the schools having made significant gains in the quality of education offered.

"The first thing that happens is that when a school gets into financial trouble, people say 'Oh, no, HBCUs are going down the drain,'" she said.

Gasman said the schools suffered disproportionately in 2009 during the country's economic crunch. Most of the schools, which traditionally have had smaller endowments, also have a hard time with alumni giving — partly because graduates don't necessarily trust the administrations with their money, she said.