Dr. Ada Fisher: Black colleges deserve more support

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 10, 2015

There are approximately 110 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States — some land grant, some developed post-slavery from the Freedmen’s Bureau, many inspired by Republican leadership, and all facing challenges which often seem insurmountable.

First, the lack of adequate funding from the Obama administration’s Plus Loan Program changed the rules of the game. Pell Grants now make many HBCU students ineligible for vital financial assistance. Coupled with escalating tuition costs due to lack of campus economies of scale, many are being forced out of the game.

At some points in recent times, these institutions provided more than half of all black college graduates. Competition for federal education funding has seen on-line colleges and community colleges competing with these schools, all with less than stellar results.

Secondly, the HBCUs endowments languish, hampering capital improvements, endowed professorships, scholarships and institutional operational stability. As students at Howard, Shaw and other institutions have learned, deferring maintenance to keep the doors open has allowed for some facilities’ neglect. Dozens have less than $2 million in their endowment yet proportionately they have done so much with so little. A Harvard, Yale or Duke has an endowment worth more than the gross value of all the HBCUs’ endowments. The HBCUs have accounted for proportionately more of the nation’s diversity, though they aren’t recipients of our largesse.

Third, enrollment management at HBCUs too often takes a hit due to funding disparities. But it is the lack of vision which cripples most, for few appreciate that the HBCUs offer opportunities for leadership, a unique cultural experience, fraternal life unlike many others and provision for those in oppressed environments to escape to different worlds. Too often these institutions are a first step for many of all colors and persuasions interested in academia, often leaving when tenure is established.

Fourth is a lack of effective strategies to mobilize alumni so as to be accountable for the education received. Paying student debts positively impacts an institution’s future funding. Sending other students builds a talent pool. Giving back money is most important;  all should have at least $20 million in their endowments to tide them over in hard times.

Fift, is the need for surrounding communities to view the HBCUs as part of their crown jewels. Their substantial economic impacts include student spending, rentals and part-time employment. For purposes of survival, many HBCUs are absorbed into state structures, thereby compromising their distinct identities while additionally scrubbing clean their legacies.

Lastly are some unmentionables, including lifestyle bending which permeates student bodies, faculty and boards all without adequate checks and little balance in their resource commitments. Often forgotten in the rapid downfall of Bill Cosby has been his giving of more than $50 million to our HBCUs — which exceeds billionaires Oprah Winfrey, Robert and Sheila Johnson or Michael Jordan — to the education of those who look like them.

The Rockefeller largesse gave us Morehouse and Spelman. Biddle University, named for James Biddle Duke, transformed into Johnson C. Smith University but has continued received substantially from the Duke Endowment.

What will be our HBCU call to alms?

The HBCUs are our gatekeepers to opportunities. Without them we could escalate the continued segregation in higher education. Investing in them is an investment in our future.

Dr. Ada M. Fisher of Salisbury is the N.C. Republican National Committee Woman. Contact her at DrFisher@DrAdaMFisher.org.