Historically black colleges fight for survival, reopening amid coronavirus pandemic

“We move to part two of this article speaking of our HBCU institutions and how they will survive in this pandemic crisis”

That approach may have been exposed by the pandemic as out of step with higher education business models, said Dale Whittaker, a former president of the University of Central Florida.

When colleges sent students home during the pandemic, many refunded payments for room and board and lost income from other services such as bookstores. The resulting budget holes have created a crisis, especially for small, residential colleges that depended on fees generated by the wraparound service approach, said Whittaker, a senior adviser to Grant Thornton Higher Education Practice, an independent audit and advisory firm, who’s been researching universities’ responses to COVID-19.

Schools can no longer afford to rely “on auxiliary services – dining, athletics, bookstores, residence halls – as a dependable revenue stream,” he said. “My point is that the idea you can count on that $2 million or $3 million in your budget (from those programs) is a thing of the past.”

The effects of the coronavirus mean online learning in some form is likely to continue to be a reality for college students. Providing a higher level of service – much less charging for it – becomes problematic.

“As a smaller institution, we rely very heavily on (the fees from) the auxiliary services,” such as fees for athletics, student affairs, health services, police, dining and housing, said Peggy Valentine, the chancellor at Fayetteville State University. “If students aren’t living on campus, then we don’t really have the resources.”

In the short term, the loss of those fees could affect the sustainability of sports programs and the ability of colleges to pay back their debts on new campus buildings, she said. In the longer term, the very nature of HBCUs could be altered.

“If everything is online, it will be a different university,” Valentine said.

Will students disappear?

Like colleges across the country, HBCUs are bracing for what fall enrollment could look like. Florida A&M projects an enrollment of 10,000 students – the same as last year – but is preparing for drops of as much as 20%.

Xavier McClinton, the incoming student government president at FAMU, predicted his fellow classmates would continue “to make the best out of the situation.” But he conceded that the disruption to classes caused a mixed reaction among students.

“I think the students understand about the health environment about the pandemic and how important it is for us to be safe,” said McClinton, a fourth-year economics major from Brunswick, Georgia. “There is some mixed consensus about coming back, a combination of health concerns and safety concerns.”

Marybeth Gasman, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions, worries about HBCUs that are so reliant on tuition income.

“I think enrollments will be down across the country,” Gasman said. “But HBCUs are so enrollment-driven, that could be a big issue. They really have to be pounding the pavement around enrollment right now.”

That could be tough as black families struggle to recover from the coronavirus. Data from cities and states across the country shows an overrepresentation of African American hospitalizations and deaths from the virus, while black unemployment has more than doubled, surpassing 16% in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“These families are the first hit and take the longest to recover,” said Whittaker, the higher education adviser. “We might not see the impact on HBCUs until (next) spring or even (later) next year. My concern for presidents is these are the students that will disappear invisibly, quietly. You won’t hear from them. The concern is once they do leave, it will be very hard to get them back into higher education.”

Florida A&M’s Robinson shared those concerns.

“I’m worried about the financial impact on the families,” he said, “not just from this fall, but in the future as well, because of the fact that they don’t have a financial cushion to get through this tough time and the fact that the recovery for persons of color in these previous economic downturns has been longer. We will get through this, but some will take longer than others.”

Like many black families, HBCUs don’t have a lot of cushion to absorb the losses of a slow recovery.

The Department of Education’s heightened cash monitoring list – a record of institutions under additional oversight of the dispersal of federal student aid funds – includes at least eight HBCUs, some of whom as a requirement of their status will need to self-finance their own financial aid up front, amounting to millions, to be reimbursed at a later date. It’s a situation that would put tremendous strain on an already cash-strapped school.

For small private colleges that typically charge double or triple the tuition and room-and-board fees of public schools, the pandemic’s impact on the livelihoods of African American families may send them elsewhere.

University of New Orleans economist Gregory Price said the effect could be “epoch-making.”

“I hate to sound alarmist, but if they cannot self-finance their own student financial aid … they could be forced to take some drastic measures, in fact, maybe even close,” he said. “And if they don’t close it may set them up for a loss of accreditation down the road, which will certainly spell their doom.”

‘Sense of community’

If HBCUs are to find a vaccine for pandemic-induced financial woes, the key may lie in the personal-service nature that added to their vulnerability in the first place.

Gasman, who keeps tabs on all HBCUs as part of her work, said they’ve gone to great lengths to preserve a nurturing environment, even with everyone online.

“One of the things we’ve noticed is they are working really, really hard to foster a sense of community,” she said. “That’s a big deal. Some might argue that this is touchy-feely, but touchy-feely equals retaining students, which equals enrolling students, which equals alumni donations, which equals an overwhelming positive impression of the institution.”

Florida A&M enlisted the help of students, as well as alumni from across the country, to promote the school’s history, academic programs and robust campus life during a host of social media campaigns and virtual town hall engagements. Other schools instituted similar programs.

One example cited by Gasman was a photo on social media of Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University in New Orleans, standing in full cap-and-gown regalia amid lawn signs bearing the faces of spring graduates.

“They’re really, really trying to get people to feel ownership and at home and a sense of community,” Gasman said. “Other places are doing that. I would say HBCUs are really going all out. There’s a difference compared to other places. And HBCUs are better equipped to do that. They have been doing it for so long.”

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