Black Colleges Feeling Collective Pain

Leaders and advocates of these institutions say they badly need more federal funds to manage costs associated with coronavirus.

March 18, 2020
 
Representative Alma Adams

Leaders of historically black colleges and universities are strongly advocating for additional federal funding for their institutions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. They say the costs of operating during the public health crisis and managing an array of related challenges threaten the future survival of their struggling institutions.

The United Negro College Fund, which provides general scholarship funds for 37 private historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents and supports public HBCUs and other predominantly black institutions, known as PBIs, are leading the effort to help the colleges lobby members of Congress for an additional, one-time allocation of $1.5 billion to help financially strapped HBCUs, PBIs and MSIs, or minority-serving institutions.

The two organizations along with presidents of some of the 105 HBCUs took part in a conference call led by a member of Congress Monday to discuss the financial, logistical and technical problems they are now facing. The call was convened by U.S. House member, Representative Alma Adams, founder and co-chair of the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus. Representative Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, also took part, as did a staff member for Representative Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

“HBCUs graduate an outsized proportion of African-American college graduates and an outsized proportion of low-income, first generation college students. In order to ensure HBCUs continue their mission, they need assistance in emergencies such as this,” Adams said in written responses to questions.

She said she and other lawmakers have heard from “the entire HBCU community” about how their institutions have been affected by the pandemic, and gotten their input on the colleges' funding needs.

“We are currently working toward a package that will include many, if not all, of those recommendations,” she wrote. “Our offices and House leadership are currently engaged in working on another stimulus package to address some of the worst impacts of the pandemic. We are confident that HBCUs will find additional support in that package.”

Congress passed bipartisan legislation last December that made permanent $255 million in annual STEM funding for minority-serving colleges, including roughly $85 million specifically allocated to HBCUs.While the legislation, called the FUTURE Act, was widely praised by leaders and supporters of the colleges, advocates for more funding are now concerned about the more immediate future.

Lodriguez V. Murray, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, said HBCU leaders and supporters of their institutions were encouraged by the response of Adams and other lawmakers.

“It is clear to our community -- especially HBCUs, but MSIs overall -- that there is significant interest on the Hill concerning our effort,” he said. “Representative Adams, Representative Bass and Representative Scott all seem interested in the unique needs and abilities of HBCUs and how this pandemic impacts them.”

Murray said a large group of college presidents took part in the conference call and offered firsthand accounts of what is taking place on the ground at their individual institutions as college and university administrators across the country race to turn campuses into online or remote institutions to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Many HBCUs are heavily financially dependent on student enrollment and have modest endowments. They don't get the same level of philanthropic support from rich donors that predominately white institutions routinely receive. Their ability to quickly transition from in-person to remote or online instruction is limited and hampered by financial costs, technological capabilities and other challenges.

What’s more, the students that attend these institutions are largely reliant on financial aid. Some cannot afford to leave the campuses and travel home to take classes remotely, and others have nowhere else to go and rely on campus housing and meal plans. Others won’t be able to participate in online classes because they don’t have computers or reliable internet access at home. Some may not be able to afford to return to the college if, and when, the campuses return to normal operations.

“HBCUs are unique institutions.They operate closer to the margins.” Murray said. "Situations outside of our control -- natural disasters, hurricanes and now the coronavirus pandemic -- tend to hurt us more than other institutions.

“Add to that the fact that students on some of these campuses will not be able to come back and that these institutions may have to forfeit funds from room and board. That will be disastrous for HBCUs,” he said. “One institution that reached out to us said it could be impacted by $2 to $4 million, and this is an institution that does not have $2 to $4 million to spare.”

Murray added that while distance learning options was a nice offering to have in the past, it was not always a priority of the institutions.

“Many HBCUs and a lot of MSIs did not have this distance learning technology,” he said. “For that reason, we knew that when students come back from spring break, it was going to be important for the institutions to have the resources to get them their education.”

David K. Sheppard, senior vice president, general counsel and chief of staff at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, wrote in a note to congressional offices that the public institutions that TMCF represents "have been forced to implement a hybrid approach, temporarily cancelling classes and/or extending spring break to give them additional time to implement remote learning programs, while simultaneously having to leave campus open and accessible to students facing greater socio-economic challenges, attempting to manage the needs of students returning from study abroad programs who have self-quarantined in residence halls and redoubling their efforts to keep their larger campus communities safe in an environment where schools have a heightened duty to their various on-campus constituencies and greater exposure to potential liability in the face of an ongoing health emergency.

He said trying to meet all these responsibilities "places a heightened strain" on institutions that “lack the supplementary resources necessary to defray the additional costs that they have had to incur to adjust to this very fluid situation.”

There’s a sense in higher ed circles that despite the urgency of the moment, things will eventually return to normal and college campuses will revert to traditional spaces brimming with students and activity, where instruction is provided in physical instead of virtual classrooms and face-to-face interactions between professors and students are the norm again. No such guarantees exist for black colleges and universities. The leaders of those institutions believe the coronavirus crisis poses a very real existential threat; many of them worry that some colleges may end up permanently closing at a time when the long-term survival of HBCUs is a source of concern.

"Hopefully the funding is made available before these institutions close out their fiscal year, because if not, that would be catastrophic and end up hurting them in such a way that they can’t open in the fall," Murray said. He noted that colleges with troubled financial status risk loosing their accreditation or being put on probation, further hurting their future viability.

 "We’re hoping that the goodwill that has been expressed to us over the last two years via bipartisan compromise in Congress is extended to us again."

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