by James A. Bacon
All colleges and universities find themselves under unremitting pressure these days as consumers balk at relentless increases in tuition & fees and new business models coalesce around online education. But few are as stressed as the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which have special problems all their own.
Sidney A. Ribeau, the president of the prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C., announced his retirement Monday following a 6.3% decline in enrollment this year and a decline in its Moody’s credit rating from A3 to Baa1, according to the Wall Street Journal. That incident follows the recent firing of Norfolk State University (NSU) President Tony Atwater and the closing of St. Paul’s College in Southside Virginia this summer.
“There are so many teetering on the edge right now … without some kind of intervention, 20% to 30% [of HBCUs] cannot survive another decade,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Some problems are particular to the historically black institutions, which tend to have small endowments and rely heavily upon tuition and fees to meet expenses. The savings of black families were devastated by the 2007-2008 recession, and the 2010 tightening of eligibility requirements for Plus Loans (federal loans taken by parents on behalf of their children) impacted low-income families disproportionately. A WSJ survey found that enrollment had declined at a third of the 85 HBCUs surveyed by 10% or more between 2010 and 2012.
A longer-term trend has been the increased competition other higher ed institutions for black students; 90% of black students today now enroll outside HBCUs. Like the black-owned hospitals, banks, insurance companies that arose to serve blacks during the Jim Crow era, HBCUs have struggled to redefine their role in a desegregated society.
Online learning may provide the coup de grace. Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), hybrid MOOCs and other permutations of online learning have the potential to slash the cost of delivering educational instruction. While students craving the residential experience at elite institutions such as Harvard, MIT or the University of Virginia may continue to pay a premium tuition, others, less willing to run up tens of thousands of dollars in debt, will gravitate toward online learning. The “existential threat,” to borrow a phrase from former UVa Rector Helen Dragas, will hit the HBCUs first.
Here in Virginia, Norfolk State has the most visible problems, but Virginia Union University (private) and Virginia State University (state-supported) may have slender margins for error. My impression is that Hampton University (private), one of the strongest HBCUs in the country, has the best chance to find its way in the new era.
Other universities will be tempted to dismiss the travails of the HBCUs as unique to that set of institutions. But they would be foolish to do so. HBCUs are simply located the closest to shore when the tsunami hits.