| October 14 2019,

03:10 am

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) continue to pave the way for countless students of color, providing an experience and education that's parallel to none. Yet, the future for many of these institutions hangs in the balance. As the clock ticks on Capitol Hill for an extension to a bill funding primarily HBCUs, many institutions are struggling to stay afloat. 

Mostly founded after the Civil War, HBCUs were once filled entirely by Black students. Now, in a battle to compete with other schools in higher education, HBCUs have become more diverse. According to a report from The Los Angeles Times, "Fifty years ago, 90 [percent] of [B]lack postsecondary students attended historically [B]lack schools. In 1990, it was close to 17 [percent]. Today, around 9 [percent] do."

Bennett College came under fire at the beginning of the year when their accreditation, a quality assurance process that audits higher education institutions against applicable standards, came into question after struggling to maintain enrollment numbers. Once an institution loses its accreditation, students can no longer qualify for financial aid, which many students depend on to cover the high costs associated with postsecondary education. The all-women's college in Greensboro, North Carolina, had been facing plummeting enrollment numbers for years, with dwindling endowments

The college launched a successful campaign, fundraising more than $9.5 million after initially setting a goal for $5 million. Despite temporarily losing their accreditation, Bennett sued the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, granting them up to two years of accreditation. The institution also hired two law firms to restrict SACS from pulling their temporary accreditation.  

However,  Bennett College isn’t the only HBCU facing an uphill battle; these five educational institutions are fighting the good fight on the battlefield of funding in hopes of sustaining.

1. Elizabeth City State University (ECSU)

As of 2019, ECSU has just a little over 1,500 students, according to US News. The public university, founded in 1891, found themselves in hot water back in 2016 when an audit revealed the school was admitting students who didn't meet admission requirements and was issuing financial aid packages to students who didn't properly apply or meet the qualifications. 

On September 24, it was announced the HBCU is preparing for their accreditation review, which isn't expected to take place for another two years. The review will focus on ECSU's compliance while upholding accreditation standards.

2. Paine College

The college has been in a legal battle for years with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) to maintain their accreditation. At the beginning of the year, a judge gave Paine 30 days to seek an appeal to maintain their accreditation until a lawsuit was adjudicated. Their accreditation came into question as enrollment started to decline, causing some financial setbacks. The college's enrollment had dropped to nearly 400 students back in 2017. That number has since increased to 500, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The school is now currently accredited by SACS, in addition to the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), which also currently accredits Bennett College. 

3. Barber-Scotia College

Struggling to get out of debt since losing its accreditation in 2004, Barber-Scotia is barely holding on, WSOC reports. According to WSOC-TV, the school has busted windows, overgrown landscaping and other repair needs. Despite receiving a loan for $7 million in 2000, the school was reported owing more than $11.1 million. A local city councilman created a task force to help prevent the school from foreclosing. Back in March, the National Alumni Association of Barber-Scotia College Inc. hosted a meeting to focus on the future of the school. 

4. Morris Brown College

A new president at Morris Brown College is hoping to come in and revitalize the school. The college went bankrupt after losing its accreditation back in 2002. Although the school has been featured in cultural references like the movie Drumline and Outkast's song "Morris Brown," the school only has an enrollment of approximately 40 students. Because the school is not accredited, the students there can't receive federal financial aid, but Dr. Kevin James said he hopes to bring in enough money to regain their accreditation

5. Cheyney University 

As the oldest HBCU, Cheyney was founded in 1837 in Pennsylvania. The university has been in a constant battle to maintain their accreditation. In April 2019, it was announced the school was trying to fundraise at least $4 million to keep its doors open. On September 23, The Philadelphia Tribune reported the university's administrators misused federal money, taking funds from a scholarship program to pay employees, awarding full-ride scholarships to students who failed to meet the requirements and inflated their enrollment. Middle State Commission is scheduled to determine the future of the school's accreditation in November 2019.

Possible Solutions For Lasting Change

While 18 HBCUs have already closed, with five shutting down as recently as 1989, including St. Paul's College, Lewis College of Business and Concordia College,  it’s now or never for several institutions. Recruiting and redirecting the attention of Black students to universities designed to produce Black excellence is a priority for maintaining relevance in the classroom and on Capitol Hill. Accessibility and affordability — topics presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke of during his visit to Bennett College on September 18 — are primary hinderances for low-income families in pursuit of higher education for their children.

The dire need to apply pressure on state representatives and senators to help HBCUs echoed throughout his speech. “For the sake of this country and the world, we need you to be actively involved in the political process,” Sanders said. “We need you to be thinking big, not small.” 

Sanders has been direct with his plans to make colleges and universities tuition-free, ensuring Black and brown students have a greater chance on the playing field of postsecondary education. Because many students who attend HBCUs rely on federal funding, free tuition could be the turning point that tips the scales back in the school's favor by turning low enrollment rates around.

Redirecting the acclaim many white colleges receive for their top-performing Black athletes to HBCUs could be another means to reprioritize the attention of prominent politicians, like Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who side-eyed the idea of offering funding to struggling schools. In September, Alexander blocked a bill providing a short-term extension for funding for mostly HBCUs. Critics say his proposed plans for the bill ignore accountability and affordability

While there is certainly some work to be done to help sustain the history and legacy of HBCUs and their founders, one thing that's clear is it's time to start applying pressure and refocusing priorities within the Black community and on Capitol Hill.