Historically black colleges fight for survival, reopening amid coronavirus pandemic

After Alabama announced its first confirmed COVID-19 case March 13, Miles College President Bobbie Knight began making calls. She knew the historically black private college would have to shut down its 76-acre campus in Fairfield and devise a plan to operate remotely, but the first thing she needed to do was get her students back home safely.

The problem, she soon realized, was that some of them had no place to go.

Though all colleges have been hurt by coronavirus closures and face uncertainties in the fall, the impact is particularly acute for historically black colleges and universities. The same history of oppression and institutional racism that ignited protests against police violence across the USA has left most black schools underfunded, often operating on shoestring budgets and unprepared to absorb sudden shock.

Most HBCUs – particularly private colleges such as Miles that receive little to no state support – depend more on enrollment and have smaller endowments than other universities. Some were struggling financially before the coronavirus, leaving experts to wonder how many will survive if the pandemic leads to a prolonged dip in enrollment.

At Miles, a private college of about 1,500 students, Knight quickly discovered there would be no way to avoid digging into the operating budget to meet the task at hand. This was a problem that required expensive solutions.

She had students who had aged out of foster care and moved straight into the dorms. Others who returned home after campus had closed to find they no longer had a place to live. Knight had to help them all. The college purchased plane tickets for some and gas cards for others. The president even phoned a niece in California – she had a student who was in and out of a shelter, could the niece help?

Then came health complications from the crisis. Some students were grieving for parents who had died from the virus. Others were infected themselves, including one student from a single-parent household. His mother and sister had come down with COVID-19. His sister survived, his mother did not. The young man had become head of household overnight. His mother’s dying wish?

“ ‘I want you to go back and finish your education,’ ” Knight said, relaying the story. Even on her last breath, the mother understood what was at stake – for her son and for HBCUs overall.

‘Wraparound services’

HBCUs are mobility drivers. They produce 42% of the country’s black engineers, 80% of its black judges and 40% of its African American members of Congress. The country’s 107 HBCUs enroll 228,000 primarily black students annually, many from poor households, more than half among the first in their families to attend university.

To fund their education, more than 75% of HBCU students rely on Pell Grants and almost all of those remaining receive PLUS loans borrowed by parents, according to the Thurgood Marshall Fund. At Miles, practically the entire student body, 98%, receive some form of financial aid.

PLUS loans:When college dreams for students mean nightmarish debt for family

HBCUs have traditionally met this challenge with an approach Brent Chrite, the president of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, called “wraparound services”: a level of personal attention from administrators and faculty intended to promote a supportive, family atmosphere that’s largely fallen by the wayside at larger schools.

“It’s one of the more clear and distinct value propositions we offer,” said Chrite, who became president last year amid a financial crisis that left B-CU’s accreditation on probation. “We feel it is powerfully unique.”

OurHBCU schools are very unique in that each university has their own particular students who come from different environments which presents their own problems. Their families cannot afford any supplemental financial support of any kind. These shortfall include basic support toothbrush, toiletries, clothing or other livable items. Continue to Part 2

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