Boldness, Not Band Aids, Needed at Shaw

Two Raleigh colleges have reacted differently to hard times and the changing academic landscape. Peace College made a bold move to improve its chances for survival, while Shaw University seems too mired in confusion and denial to escape from its current problems.

Peace’s decision to go co-ed was necessary to fend off declining enrollments that led to program closures. Raleigh’s other women’s college—Meredith—is thriving, perhaps with some students who might have otherwise chosen Peace. Accepting men for the first time caused an uproar among Peace’s fiercely loyal alumni, but making no change would likely have had disastrous results. The decision was not about rejecting the school’s past, but about remaining open or closing its doors permanently.

A few blocks away, Shaw’s soap opera continues. It has had three presidents in three years—four if you consider Dorothy Yancy’s two temporary appointments individually. One president, Clarence G. Newsome, took the fall for the school’s mounting financial problems in 2009, and a second, Irma McClaurin, was just ushered out in a cloud of suspicion of unspecified financial improprieties, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. Another high-ranking administrator, vice president of academic affairs Marilyn Sutton-Haywood, resigned on August 8, a day before McClaurin.

Shaw was struggling under a $20 million debt two years ago. Yancy postponed some impending problems by securing a $31 million federal loan. Yet the same solution—more borrowing—will not reverse its sagging fortunes, but will most likely add to them. Even with good, stable leadership, the school faces a tough future and needs to make a strong move before it’s too late. Even worse, with Yancy again an interim president and no major changes in the board of trustees, that badly needed stable leadership seems unlikely.

Yancy admitted in 2010 that, because of the school’s shaky finances, Shaw’s next accreditation review—scheduled for completion in 2012—was likely to be unfavorable. This was before a tornado hit the campus in the spring of 2011, causing over $3 million in damages.

Strangely, the tornado may prove to have been partly a blessing in disguise, since it brought some federal money for repairs and enabled the school to extend the accreditation process to a later date. But such fixes are only temporary, while the problems are longstanding and mounting.

It just so happens that there is a potential solution, and it’s practically next door. St. Augustine’s College is currently part of Shaw’s problem. They compete for the same students, and in some cases, for the same donors. They share similar problems, such as attracting quality students. According to the website Black College Search, the average combined math and reading SAT score of incoming freshmen at Shaw is only 765, while at St. Augustine’s it is 835, and Shaw’s six-year graduation rate is 30 percent, while St. Augustine’s is 37 percent.* Both schools are heavily tuition-driven, and that tuition comes largely from government financial aid: 70 percent at Shaw and 80 percent at St. Augustine qualify for the federal Pell grant program for low-income families.

Just as the Raleigh area appears to be big enough for only one women’s college, it may be that perhaps the city can support only one private historically black college (HBCU). These schools not only compete with one another for students and resources, they compete with North Carolina’s five public HBCUs, where tuition is as little as one quarter that of the private schools.  As long as the two schools co-exist, practically next door to each other, neither will reach its full potential. Both will likely struggle until there is an eventual survivor—right now that looks to be St. Augustine’s.

It is therefore in the interests of the two schools—especially Shaw—to consider a merger. This idea may seem implausible at first and raise the same howls of protest that Peace’s decision to go coed did; Shaw especially is known for the passionate emotional support of its alumni, while St. Augustine’s is also no slouch in that regard. That Shaw is Baptist and St. Augustine’s is Episcopalian adds to the difficulties of their potential union.

But a merger would solve many problems. Joining the best students and best faculty from each school would make the newly merged institution more academically competitive than either can be now. Sharing resources and ending duplication would not only lower costs, but would also permit the merged institutions to sell off some property to raise funds. Perhaps most important of all, joint governance with St. Augustine’s could provide the stability at the top so lacking at Shaw in recent years.

Collapse is not mere idle talk. Schools like Shaw that rely heavily on tuition receipts from financial aid suffer greatly after losing accreditation, since students can only use federal aid at accredited schools. Some examples of other small private colleges in the region that lost accreditation include Barber Scotia College in Concord, North Carolina, which is teetering on the edge with only 20 current students, and Georgia’s Morris Brown College, which is struggling with 240 students—fewer than 10 percent of its peak enrollment. St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina, lost accreditation in 2007 and was sold to Webber International University in 2011 to avoid further financial decline. 

North Carolina schools in the past have made big changes for financial reasons, and the changes turned out well—tiny Trinity College changed its name at the behest of a donor and became world-class Duke University, and little Wake Forest College moved 100 miles away to Winston-Salem, largely due to gifts and encouragement from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and become a prestigious university as well. Even St. Andrews began with a merger between Flora Macdonald College and Presbyterian Junior College in 1958 and thrived for nearly 50 years.

The ongoing economic downturn means that there will be fewer resources for higher education in the near future; the competition for students and funding by private colleges will grow increasingly intense. Nationally, alumni giving has fallen dramatically from pre-recession levels. Large-scale government help for failing private organizations appears to be increasingly unlikely in light of economic and political trends. Even if Shaw manages to settle its governance woes, a turnaround of fortunes seems distant, at best. The alternative to boldness may be to wither and die.

*Editor’s note: Graduation rates for St. Augustine’s are uncertain. According to federal IPEDS information, in the last three years the rates have ranged from 13 to 48 percent, a range that defies statistical norms and suggests a problem with the reporting of data.