Are HBCUs facing a ‘sink-or-swim moment’?

Billionaire Robert F. Smith’s announcement in May that he would pay off the student debt of Morehouse College’s 2019 graduating class not only shocked those 400 students but also drew attention to just how severely the student loan crisis has hit historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). While student debt, along with state and federal budget cuts and rising costs, have “broadly hamstrung higher education,” they are “killing HBCUs,” Delece Smith-Barrow, a senior editor at The Hechinger Report, recently wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.

Threats to HBCUs’ financial stability

HBCUs have long played a crucial role in building the nation’s Black middle class, producing, for instance, half of the nation’s Black physicians and teachers. In 1976, HBCUs enrolled nearly one in five Black college students. But, as of 2010, that number had fallen to less than one in 10 and has held steady since. Among students who do enroll at HBCUs, nearly 60 percent are the first in their families to attend college and hail from low-income households.

Unable to secure ample private investments or hike tuition—which would limit access and run counter to HBCUs’ core mission—many HBCUs are finding themselves “on the brink of disaster,” Smith-Barrow says. Fifteen HBCUs have closed since 1997, and many more “will need to be transformed, reinvigorated, to ensure their futures are as vibrant as their pasts.”

Varying efforts to secure HBCUs’ future

While donations by billionaires like Smith and Oprah, along with university crowdfunding efforts, can help temporarily buoy HBCUs, they are “a Band-Aid for wounds that needs surgery,” Smith-Barrow writes.

She notes that some HBCUs have pursued innovative solutions, transforming into work colleges and marketing their offerings to students of other races. Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, is one HBCU that has made a concerted effort to diversify its student body, enrolling more Latinx, Asian, and international students, who often pay full tuition to attend a university in the United States.

“Time may be running out for dozens of historically black colleges,” Smith-Barrow writes, cautioning that “if the federal government doesn’t issue a rescue mission in the coming decade, it’s a tragic extinction we should be prepared for.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

In grad school, first-gen students face additional hidden challenges

The first-generation student experience isn’t limited to the undergraduate years. In fact, first-gen graduate students may encounter even more intense hurdles in a competitive environment that prizes social connections.