S.C. State struggles to stay afloat: Can historically black colleges survive?

A financial crisis plaguing the South Carolina State University has officials discussing the future of historically black colleges and universities in America.

Jeffrey Collins/AP
Rep. Joe Neal (c.) tells a rally at the State House that black lawmakers will not let South Carolina State University be shut down, on Feb. 16, in Columbia, S.C.

A financial crisis plaguing the South Carolina State University has pushed a larger issue into the spotlight: the fate of historically black colleges and universities across the United States.

Earlier this month, South Carolina lawmakers proposed shutting down the state's only public historically black college for a two-year period. The announcement came the same week President Obama met with the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss the future of the nation's historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

To the chagrin of many attending the meeting, Mr. Obama reportedly said that the lowest performing institutions "should fall by the wayside." The discussion raised questions about the future of HBCUs in America, institutions that have received flak in recent years for being financially unsustainable and leaving graduates poorly prepared and crippled with debt.

“A Wall Street Journal analysis of the [Department of Education’s College] Scorecard puts HBCUs next to for-profit art schools when it comes to leaving students with high amounts of debt and degrees written in ‘red ink,’ " wrote reporter Brendan Thomas in The Daily Caller, a right-leaning news website.

But supporters of HBCUs say the institutions should be preserved because of the unique role they play in the country’s education system.  

“Though traditionally 'white' schools (TWIs) now accept students of color, they often do not do enough to ensure that those students, particularly first-generation college attendees, have the resources to make it to graduation,” says Matthew Lynch, dean of the School of Education, Psychology, and Interdisciplinary Studies and an associate professor of Education at the Virginia Union University, in Richmond, Va.  

“TWIs do a good job, but sometimes there is a disconnect between the resources distributed and the needs of African-American students. We don’t take into account that many of the students who go to HBCUs are already underprepared for college and are financially disadvantaged," he says. "There will be a need for HBCUs as long as discrimination and racism exist in the US.”

And Representative Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat and graduate of Clark Atlanta University, a historically black university, said that Obama’s comments to the Congressional Black Caucus were off base.

“It was a somewhat callous view of the unique niche HBCUs fill,” he told the HBCU digest.

However, most agree that the role HBCUs play has changed over the years.

“What was once a role built of necessity has slowly disappeared, however. The civil rights movement, affirmative action initiatives and more recently, the popularity and legitimacy of online degree programs, have all chipped away at the core reason HBCUs were developed in the first place. Declining enrollment has unsurprisingly led to a domino effect, reducing the resources available to students on-campus, and making the HBCU experience less attractive to students choosing between a plethora of higher education options,” wrote Mr. Lynch in the Huffington Post.

Moreover, Lynch agrees with Obama that the schools that underperform financially should face consequences. 

“A school that isn’t performing shouldn’t be receiving state or federal funds,” Lynch says.

And among the struggling HBCUs, South Carolina State University is in especially rough shape. It owes millions of dollars, enrollment has dropped notably over the past eight years, and only about 14 percent of its students graduate in four years.

Despite this dismal picture, those opposed to closing the school blame the state for the university’s financial woes and say it should be held accountable. A group of students and alumni have filed a federal suit blaming South Carolina officials for the university’s difficulties. They say the school has been chronically underfunded and that the state has allowed nearby schools with better reputations to offer courses identical to the ones taught by South Carolina State.

This is not the first time that a state has been accused of shortchanging historically black institutes of learning. In 2013, a federal judge determined that Maryland had persistently underfunded the state’s HBCUs and created a “separate and unequal” system of public higher education by allowing better-funded schools to offer the same academic programs.

Moreover, a 2013 report by the Association of Public Land Grant Universities found that historically black land grant universities in 17 states, including South Carolina, received $56 million less than they should have in state funding.  Meanwhile, several predominantly white land grant colleges received more than they were owed, NPR reported.

But regardless of the reasons behind their chronic underperformance, most experts agree that something will need to change if HBCUs are to keep their doors open.

“If HBCUs change in the right way, they can succeed. But they must want to change. As they change, they can attract corporate and alumni support and general public funding,” says Richard F. America, adjunct professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Both Lynch and Dr. America say that many HBCUs suffer from a problem of leadership.

“They need to stop thinking of themselves as historically black," America says. "They are historically black in fact, but that is not a competitive advantage anymore. They need to think about how to compete with all universities.... But ultimately the problems with these schools are ones we can fix.”

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