Keith Powell knows all about the challenges that historically black colleges and universities face, perhaps like never before. Many struggle to make ends meet. Turnover at the top is all too frequent and destabilizing. Enrollment numbers are in decline; retention and graduation rates never seem high enough. It’s a storyline so old that it’s not even news anymore.
But as an HBCU administrator, Powell knows the flipside, too, about the all-too-wide gap that the nation’s historically black colleges and universities see as their mission to help close: Creating opportunities for the thousands of students whose circumstances often leave them poorly prepared to pursue the postsecondary education now so critical to realizing the American Dream. Powell knows because he faced the same kind of odds as a kid growing up in Gary, Indiana, at a time and place where the American Dream was fast losing its luster. Steel mills were closing; middle-class horizons narrowing.
Powell knows that HBCUs also represent opportunity for students from families with low incomes, for students who are often the first in their family to attend college and those who were shortchanged of a good education because of inequities in public schools.
“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gone to HBCUs,” says Powell, associate vice president for student affairs at Shaw University, in Raleigh, North Carolina, which opened in 1865 and is the oldest historically black institution in the South. “I wouldn’t have known how to ask for help.”
Right out of high school in Gary, Powell enrolled in Hampton University, an HBCU in Virginia, and later transferred to Saint Augustine’s University, also in Raleigh, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn his master’s degree from Indiana University and doctorate from North Carolina State University. Powell joined the Shaw administration after working in student support roles at N.C. State and Saint Augustine’s.
A Question of Relevance
Decades after colleges and universities that once denied admission to black students opened their doors to students of all races, HBCUs still matter, say current and former leaders of the institutions, even in the face of perennial questions about their sustainability and relevance. Differences in race and income remain insidious factors that grant advantages to some while denying opportunities to others. The institutions account for a disproportionate share of black college graduates: HBCUs represent only about 3 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities and about 11 percent of black college enrollment, but they account for nearly 20 percent of black college graduates.
In North Carolina, black students are far more likely to attend and graduate from the state’s HBCUs. The state’s five public and five private institutions — the most of any state — enrolled nearly half (48 percent) of all black college students in North Carolina in 2013, according to the latest data from the University of North Carolina. About eight out of 10 of those students attended the five public institutions, including North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and N.C Central University in Durham, the state’s largest HBCUs.
Overall, black students represented about 21 percent of all college students in the state in 2013, yet black enrollment in the state’s two flagship institutions was barely a third of that — just 8.3 percent of total enrollment at UNC Chapel Hill and 7.4 percent at N.C. State University.
Low graduation rates at some HBCUs — Shaw and Saint Augustine’s included — are often the focus of questions about value, especially with tuition and expenses that can exceed $25,000 a year. Six-year graduation rates at both Raleigh institutions are about 30 percent. HBCU leaders note that many of their students face financial pressures and academic challenges that more advantaged students do not — factors that can derail completion.
Still, public concern about the cost of college — subsidized by federal grants and loans — leaves private HBCUs such as Saint Augustine’s and Shaw vulnerable to questions about return on investment. About 75 percent of students at both schools receive federal Pell grants to help with tuition costs, and more than 85 percent receive federal loans.
Graduates of both schools face an average loan debt of more than $30,000, according to recent data from the news organization ProPublica. Average debt for graduates of all North Carolina colleges and universities is about $24,000, according to The Institute for College Access and Success, and $28,400 nationally. Default rates at both Raleigh HBCUs are above the national average of 14.5 percent three years after graduates were to have begun repaying their loans.
Race Still Matters
Now a renewed focus and national dialogue about racial justice and equity framed by the #blacklivesmatter movement is raising hopes — at least among some observers — for more interest in institutions that elevate cultural awareness and educational opportunity.
“Through the years, predominantly black spaces such as historically black colleges and universities have sheltered black people,” Melissa E. Wooten, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote in a column this summer. “More than that, they provide an important space for the fight for civil rights, equality, and black liberation.”
Echoing the Civil Rights activism of the early 1960s, Shaw students this fall have met to revive the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was first organized on the Shaw campus and played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement.
Deotis Sisco, in her senior year at Shaw, says she chose to attend the HBCU because her sister had gone there, yet also out of a sense of cultural identity that she values.
“Black people have been stripped of our culture, of our history,” says Deotis, who plans to pursue a career in marketing. “Being at an HBCU taught me more about myself. It’s given me more self-awareness.”
With few exceptions, the earliest HBCUs were founded in the aftermath of the Civil War by missionaries, church organizations and philanthropists — many of them white — to educate freed slaves. Public institutions such as N.C. A&T State University and N.C. Central University were developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s to provide state-supported higher education for blacks, then denied enrollment in the state’s white colleges and universities.
But even with the end of segregation, HBCUs continued to see their mission as one of advancing opportunities for students with limited means and often limited academic preparation while also providing a safe haven and nurturing environment.
Challenges and Opportunities Continue
Powell and other leaders of Raleigh’s two longstanding HBCUs — Shaw opened in 1865; Saint Augustine’s in 1867 as a normal school and a four-year college in 1927 — say their institutions continue to provide critical educational access that would be lost if they closed their doors. At both schools, upwards of 90 percent of students receive some form of financial aid.
“I believe we’re more relevant today than in the past,” says Everett Ward, recently installed as president of Saint Augustine’s and himself an alumnus. “We can’t afford to lose any institution that is producing scholars. We continue to produce the Thurgood Marshalls and Andy Youngs of today.”
As one example, Ward points to James Perry, an alumnus of the school and the first black justice on the Florida state supreme court.
Ward and his newly named counterpart at Shaw, Tashni-Ann Dubroy, have been hailed by their governing boards as the visionary leaders needed to recover from damaging fiscal problems and worrisome enrollment declines in recent years.
Prior to Ward’s arrival, Saint Augustine’s was plagued with staff cuts, administrative turnover and scrutiny from auditors and its accrediting agency. Shaw was beset with instability in leadership and financial troubles that required a previous president to seek a $31 million federal loan. Data compiled by the University of North Carolina system show Shaw’s enrollment in 2013 at 1,870 students, down 16 percent from 10 years earlier; Saint Augustine’s was 1,385, down 10 percent during the same period.
Ward sees the challenges that Saint Augustine’s faces in 2015 as not so different from those that the institution has faced over its nearly 150 years. From the beginning, HBCUs as a group have had to make do with less, while finding ways to advance the lives of students who often enter college with greater challenges. He keeps a photo of the class of 1914 as a reminder.
“If they could make it in 1914, we can do it now,” Ward says. “While every day is a challenge, I’m not going to give up.”
Saint Augustine’s most immediate challenge, Ward believes, is helping students pay for tuition. The Raleigh institution, like most HBCUs nationally, suffered significant enrollment declines after 2011, when the federal government tightened credit requirements on PLUS loans, which parents can take to help their children pay college costs not covered by other financial aid. By some estimates, the new restrictions resulted in 45 percent fewer PLUS loan recipients in HBCUs between 2011 and 2013.
“We need to make higher education more affordable,” Ward says. “We’ve got to look at how we can reduce the cost.”
At Saint Augustine’s, he says, that means limiting administrative fees, controlling costs to the bare bones without jeopardizing academics and doing more fundraising from alumni and friends of the university.
“We are a business, but our business is education,” Ward says. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Opportunity for the Underserved
Patrena Benton, just named vice president of academic affairs at nearby Shaw University, sees no less a challenge. But she says the value of the institution shouldn’t be in doubt.
“It’s exciting to be at an institution like Shaw that has been able to sustain itself for 150 years,” says Benton, who joined Shaw after serving as dean of the graduate school at Hampton University, one of the nation’s largest private HBCUs. “The focus is never enough on the lack of resources. Are UNC or Duke still relevant?”
Benton herself is a product of both a predominantly white institution — she got her undergraduate degree at UNC Chapel Hill — and the state’s largest public HBCU, North Carolina A&T State University, where she earned a master’s and doctorate degree.
“Everyone here is committed to increasing student retention and ensuring students are marketable and able to secure employment and that they won’t have loan debt that they can’t repay,” she says.
But given the challenges that face many students at Shaw and other HBCUs — financial stress and insufficient academic preparation — Benton argues that the institutions are judged unfairly.
“You’re not comparing apples to apples,” she says. “We’re trying to ensure that students have everything they need from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. HBCUs have been known for taking students where they are and leading where they need to be.”
Henry Capers, a senior at Saint Augustine’s, counts himself among students who have benefitted from the close bonds that can be forged on a small campus where students have ready access to faculty and staff.
Capers, also a student government leader, admits that UNC Chapel Hill was at the top of his list when applying for college from high school. A full-ride football scholarship to the HBCU was too good to turn down, he says.
“In my three years here, I realized that this was the environment that I needed because of the nurturing, family feel,” Henry says. “Class size is so small here that you’ll always know your professor. I was afraid that if I’d gone to Carolina (UNC Chapel Hill) I might have sat in a big lecture hall and not had as much of a chance to do that.”
Keith Powell, the Shaw administrator, believes that as long as students come to college with often vastly different educational advantages and disadvantages, HBCUs are not only relevant, they’re essential.
“Because of income and zip code, the trajectory of some students is going to be so different,” Powell says. “They’re not better students; they’re more advantaged students.”