VSUby James A. Bacon

Enrollment at Virginia State University in Petersburg is down by 550 students this year, and the historically black university is facing a $5.3 million shortfall, including a $2.4 million reduction in state support. “I think Virginia State is in trouble,” Terone B. Green, who serves on the board of visitors told the Times-Dispatch yesterday.

Norfolk State University, Virginia’s other public, historically black university , is facing difficulties as well, while St. Paul’s College, a private college, closed last year.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs), created to educate blacks in an era when they were denied admittance to white institutions, are struggling to redefine themselves in an era of multi-culturalism. Few have significant endowments to fall back on. And they face the same challenges as higher education generally: soaring tuitions that are pricing more and more students out of the market. As an institution that serves blacks, whose incomes have been especially hard hit in recent years, VSU is in an perilous predicament.

The enrollment loss this year will cost VSU $1.6 million in revenue. The loss of enrollment is all the more alarming, given the significant debt burden the university took on to build new residence halls. The university has pinched pennies by closing two old dorms, cutting back on furniture replacement and non-essential maintenance, pruning the full-service dining options on campus, and requiring students to live on-campus. But those changes could boomerang by diminishing the residential experience and depriving students of lower-cost options off campus.

Virginia’s HBCUs are the canary in the coal mine for higher ed. The combination of declining enrollments and heavy debt loads will create problems for other non-elite universities, whatever the ethnic mix of their student body. Washington and Lee University, whose students rank fourth highest in the country for mid-career earnings (see previous post) and which has a large endowment, shouldn’t have much trouble weathering the storm. But VSU doesn’t have a rich alumni base — average midcareer earnings, $71,800 — to tap. And its less affluent student body is especially sensitive to tuition price increases.

The situation likely will get uglier before it gets better.

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10 responses to “Now VSU Is in Trouble”

  1. I always had the impression that schools like VSU were the colleges of last resort for black kids who did not have the grades to go to other higher-rigor colleges… I had the impression that the quality of their curriculum was not particularly good.

    Black athletes – even with crummy academic performance get free tickets to schools with better credentials and many richer colleges offer scholarships to blacks and recruit them to meet their quotas. Poor blacks who did badly in school – don’t have the money even if VSU would take them.

    I think the rationale for VSC and others like it have become obsolete. People realize that a degree from that institution is not on the same level of most other institutions.

    black kids with not wonderful k-12 academic performance are vulnerable to failure at typical institutions. They could probably get into VSU but without money – VSU has to take them for less or subsidize them and that’s probably a part of their financial distress. Kids who have good academic records and/or money have a lot better options.

    these are impressions. I have no facts so if I’m gone too far – folks should let me have it and set the facts straight.

    1. VSU isn’t exactly an elite institution, but it doesn’t do a bad job. Of 997 institutions rated in the College Salary Report, VSU ranks 600. Grads earn an average of $71,800 mid-career. That’s a darn good middle-class salary. The institution has provided an avenue into the middle class for a lot of African-Americans.

      1. info I did not have.. and does change my view…a bit.

        did that report have an aggregate average mid-career number?

  2. Many historically Black colleges and universities are having and will have trouble in the future if they do not have a 21st Century strategy.
    Wilberforce University in Columbus, Ohio has closed. ND St. Paul’s in Virginia has closed and dozens more private historically Black institutions are on the verge of closing.
    VSU will have to have an expanded vision and a strategy to be successful in the future or it will not close but be troubled going forward.
    Virginia tried to help VSU diversify back in the early 1980s when the Commonwealth settled a suite with the federal government regarding desegregating our colleges and universities. The plan for VSU was comprehensive and it included special scholarships and new programs for VSU to reach out to community colleges in the area and around the state. Bu tit seems that somehow that initiative did not survive.
    In some states new strategies have emerged and there are successful historically black institutions doing well today. In West Virginia Bluefield State, a historically Black school, almost closed and became a branch of Concord College nearby. But in 1976 that union was broken and BSC became an indepently accredited school once again.
    BSC has grown in enrollment as it focused on programs where college graduates were needed in the workforce like associate and bachelor’s degrees in engineering technology, health services and technology in general. Today it has a significant percentage of Black students but it is fully integrated and serving a focused and needed educational strategy.
    So VSU, unlike NSU which in the heart of a major Virginia city, will need to have creative leadership at the board, alumni and administration level or struggle for decades to come.

    1. jwgilley – any chance you could drill down to some specifics – the things that are bringing these colleges down?

      is it something they are doing or not doing?

      is it a lack of help from the state?

      why is enrollment dropping?


  3. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    If only there was something, ANYthing the state could do to help out its public colleges.

  4. Several forces are driving enrollments which are poised to decline nationwide. The demographics are working against many colleges. Value of degrees is declining. (A company that I am familiar with recently advertised for a front desk receptionist and got 32 applications and 23 of those had bachelor’s degrees.) Cost is going up dramatically and student debt is now far exceeding a trillion dollars…close to all other consumer debt.
    Some states are attacking the cost aggressively…Tennessee just made it community colleges tuition free for residents and California is going down that path. And Tennessee along with Georgia and others offer “Hope” scholarships to the tune of about $5,000 per year paid out of lottery revenues. Several states are streamlining their public schools so that one can get a four year degree at a total tuition and fee cost (not housing) of $10,000 for the full four year degree…first two at CCs.
    And our national population is changing and we cannot afford to treat college as place holders for young people who cannot get jobs after high school.
    It is complicated but change is coming and it will hit middle range four year schools the hardest. Not W&M or U. VA.
    Already Virginia Intermonth is in trouble. When the last higher education crisis came back in the early 1970s Virginia lost lots of colleges …maybe 10.
    And demographics, economics and cultural issues will be driving change in the next ten years.
    Or that is what I am thinking. Who knows for sure?

    1. what among those things mentioned do we think is more adversely affecting historically black colleges?

      what are their unique vulnerabilities?

      I tend to think that by being predominately black – it hurts them…

      not intended as a racist remark – just the idea that whites and blacks both may not find that environment comfortable in today’s world.

      In other words – is the basic concept doomed?

  5. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    I think larryg brings up a good point. It’s certainly not racist to look at 21st century America and wonder if HBCUs will have any place. The country’s way too diverse with too many interracial relationships for colleges that are “historically black” to survive. Sure a Howard may survive, but I wonder about the rest. These institutions are going to need to adapt or they’ll continue to perish.

    VSU is a cooperative extension college and has a good ag program. Maybe it will merge with VT? There are definitely elements that could merge.

    Also…Virginia Intermont’s already out of business.

  6. I think the competition for students is intensifying as college becomes more expensive … and the bigger, more recognized schools tend to have the resources to contact prospective students and perhaps the appeal of a “brand name” … recognized sports programs, etc.

    What we maybe are missing (and maybe it’s easily available) is the enrollment data for smaller colleges in Va including private ones…

    I guess I’m surprised also that VSC is an “Ag” college.. it’s kinda of in a city type location… do they have satellite locations for Ag?

    I know in Va – Va Tech has a significant extension service across the state (smaller and lower funded than before but still fairly widespread) – for instance, we have an extension agent in Stafford and Spotsylvania that handle a wide variety of services from well water testing to soil testing , etc.

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