Failing HBCUs: Should They Receive Life Support or the Axe?

Two years ago I attended a student debate at North Carolina Central University, one of the state’s five public historically black colleges and universities. It was fascinating, especially given the self-examination raised by its topic, “HBCUs: Can They Survive?”

The moderator asked several incisive questions: Would the closure of HBCUs materially impair black students’ access to higher education? Would closing some HBCUs make the remaining ones stronger? Would the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s support an enduring HBCU presence today?

As I reported at the time, the students eloquently argued both “pro” and “con” positions and deeply engaged with the relevant facts and issues. If only more of today’s political and higher education leaders did the same.

Many of America’s 106 HBCUs—which are concentrated mostly in the South—are in crisis. Years of falling enrollment, declining academic standards and graduation rates, shrinking endowments, and poor management have called into question such institutions’ staying power.

Various reforms have been attempted, but those have often been Band-Aids for problems that demand long-term solutions and fresh thinking. The downward trajectory has continued as HBCU supporters and policymakers have treated the sector as a protected class in higher education—one in which outside criticism is labeled reactionary or, worse, a vestige of racism.

Objectively, however, HBCUs in many respects fail the students they purport to uplift: low-income students, first-generation college students, and students with substandard academic preparation.

Nationally, only about one-third of HBCU students graduate in six years, versus about two-thirds of non-HBCU students. Moreover, nearly 80 percent of HBCU students finance their education with loans. According to the Education Department, from 2000-2014 half of HBCU graduates owed more than $25,000, versus one-third of non-HBCU graduates. 

The institutions themselves face a dramatically different environment than they did in their heyday a half-century ago. Today, only about 10 percent of black college students attend historically black schools. Desegregation, along with a flourishing higher education market, have removed the barriers that at one time left many black students without access to advanced learning. 

While that trend has been good for black students overall, it has significantly affected HBCUs—whether private or public, elite, or lesser-known. For example, last year Moody’s Investors Service cut the credit rating of Howard University, one of the country’s premier HBCUs, for the third time since 2013 and labeled its debt a “substantial credit risk.”

In addition to debt and slipping enrollment, the HBCU landscape has been marred by cases involving mismanaged federal and state aid, poor strategic planning, and even corruption. In that regard, Elizabeth City State University (ECSU)—another of North Carolina’s five public HBCUs—may qualify as the poster child for failed campus leadership.

The story began with dwindling enrollment: Since 2010, ECSU’s student count dropped by 52 percent. The reasons for the dramatic dip included tightened federal student loan credit requirements (which were loosened after HBCU groups lobbied political officials and the Education Department) and a UNC system-wide increase in SAT and GPA minimums.

In response to that enrollment plunge, state lawmakers in early 2014 introduced a budget provision that called for the study of ECSU’s closure. The state’s Legislative Black Caucus, however, nixed that plan. Then in September, Stacey Franklin Jones was appointed as ECSU’s chancellor, after not being properly vetted by system leaders.

Her selection proved disastrous. Last summer an ECSU whistleblower revealed to the university’s Office of Internal Audit and the Office of the State Auditor that, among other things, students were admitted despite falling short of minimum standards (800 combined SAT, 2.5 high school GPA). Also, ineligible students received financial aid.

Following its investigation, the system’s General Administration (GA) reported that almost 100 students admitted to ECSU in fall 2015 hadn’t met admissions standards, and that 25 percent of enrolled students had not verified completion of required high school coursework. Almost $500,000 was granted to ineligible students.

Although the GA said it couldn’t verify the whistleblower’s claim that Jones urged employees to “get the numbers” no matter what (meaning admit ineligible students to boost enrollment), the indictment of her tenure was damning nonetheless. Jones resigned in late December, before the report was released.

Worse, internal audits recently obtained by Raleigh’s News & Observer indicated that Jones inappropriately received free meals, used a university employee as her personal driver, and disregarded hiring procedures when filling high-level campus positions. Suffice it to say Jones didn’t provide the leadership some hoped for following ECSU’s 2013 scandal, which revealed that more than 120 campus crimes were not properly investigated.

ECSU’s case offers big learning lessons. It is a rebuke of the drive to expand college access at all costs. It is a warning about incentives that encourage officials to game the system rather than foster academic excellence. Finally, it is a reminder that leaders must be willing to ask hard, fundamental questions, even if the establishment may not like the answers.

Before and during the time ECSU made such blunders, the UNC system itself chased enrollment increases and broadened access to underprepared students. For instance, in October 2014, a month after Jones was appointed, the Board of Governors approved a pilot program that allowed ECSU and two other historically minority schools to admit students whose SAT scores fell below the 800 minimum.

In addition to that pilot program, there was the Academic Summer Bridge, which ECSU and four other public historically minority institutions for several years used to admit academically borderline students, under the condition that they undergo an academic “boot camp” to be ready for the rigors of college. Fortunately, the legislature scrapped that program last September after years of abysmal results.

Now it appears that the legislature, in concert with UNC system officials, may be preparing for an even bolder enrollment growth strategy. A recent proposal titled “Access to Affordable Education Act” calls for growing enrollment at the state’s historically black institutions by drastically cutting tuition (to $500 per year for in-state students) and allowing schools to admit more out-of-state students (who would be charged just $2,500 per year).

While it’s unclear whether expanding the HBCUs’ demographics with such a rebranding initiative would be a panacea, it is clear that it would require a major increase in taxpayer subsidy. Also, history suggests that in the conflict between enrollment and student quality, student quality will be sacrificed, which leads to the low graduation rates and poor academic performance for which many HBCUs are notorious.

Besides, several of the state’s HBCUs are in dire financial straits, as evidenced by recent credit downgrades from Moody’s. It’s difficult to see how the structural financial issues and inept management seen at the HBCUs will be ameliorated by the above proposals.

Perhaps now is a good time for policymakers, rather than commit public funds and university resources to what could be a money pit, to consider answers to the types of bold questions raised at the student debate I attended two years ago.