WASHINGTON WATCH: Examining The State Of HBCUs & How They Can Survive (VIDEO)

HBCUs have educated freed slaves, helped create the black middle class, and still train most of the country’s black professionals; but many of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities could soon disappear in a sea of red ink.

Morris Brown College in Atlanta and St. Paul’s College in Virginia face closure, unable to pay millions in overdue bills. Virginia Union University, Grambling University and Fisk University are all in a financial crisis. Morehouse College, alma mater of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Spike Lee, has furloughed some professors and staff to make ends meet. Other HBCUs are likely to do the same if we don’t find a way to keep them afloat.

MR. MARTIN:  Welcome back to “Washington Watch.”

They educated freed slaves, helped create the black middle class, and still train most of the country’s black professionals; but many of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities could soon disappear in a sea of red ink.

Morris Brown College in Atlanta and St. Paul’s College in Virginia face closure, unable to pay millions in overdue bills.  Virginia Union University, Grambling University and Fisk University are all in a financial crisis.  Morehouse College, alma mater of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Spike Lee, has furloughed some professors and staff to make ends meet.  Other HBCUs are likely to do the same.

In September, President Barack Obama awarded $228 million in Education Department grants to help keep 97 HBCUs afloat, but the Obama Administration also tightened standards for a popular student loan program, Parent Plus.  The move had unintended consequences.  Fewer African-American families with less than perfect credit scores could qualify for the loans, and HBCUs across the board saw their income plunge along with enrollment.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the standards are now being reviewed.  I also talked with a college president who’s involved in this who said that, absolutely, they have a short-term fix, but not a long-term fix.

Black colleges, on average, have endowments of $15.8 million.  That’s about one eighth the average of a $122 million endowment of their white peers.  And just 8 percent of HBCU alumni give back to their alma mater.  Let me repeat that.  All of these black folks touting their schools – Howard and Grambling and Morehouse and Spelman and FAMU and TSU – and how they love their universities – 8 percent of HBCU alumni give back, compared to the nationwide average of 12 percent.

Now there’s hope.  Some HBCUs are going after research grants.  Others have teamed up with white institutions for joint-study programs.

A National Science Foundation study showed that majority-black colleges produce most of America’s black professionals, including 85 percent of all doctors, 60 percent of engineers and 80 percent of federal judges.

Joining me to examine the state of HBCUs and how they can survive are my guests Dr. Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education; and William Spriggs, professor of economics at Howard University and chief economist for the AFL-CIO.

Folks, welcome to the show.


MR. MARTIN:  When we lay those numbers out – and people, I think, oftentimes simply assume, “Look, these colleges – it’s really no big deal.”  But I don’t think they understand that, look, upwards of 90-plus percent of a university’s budget is based upon the financial aid the students are getting.  And so when you see the change to a Parent Plus loan, that impacts the bottom line, the ability to staff, to keep buildings and lights on at a university.

DR. WILLIAM SPRIGGS:  Right.  And it has a disproportionate impact on all black students, but because these universities have taken on the specific mission of teaching African-Americans, this has a disproportionate impact on the institution itself.  So, this was a travesty for all of African-America, but a specific hurricane – a tsunami – for African-American colleges, and it’s a great insensitivity to what African-Americans are going through, with this downturn.

The whole household sector for everyone suffered, but we know for African-Americans, with the foreclosure crisis being centered in our neighborhoods, that this is a big attack on the black middle class, that saw foreclosures go up; loss of wealth; attacks on public-sector workers – disproportionately the black middle-class; the pensions of public-sector workers – the big pension of [the] black middle class; the shrinkage we see of the United States Postal Service – black middle class.

So, this strain on the parents who can pay some of the way for their kids – this strain was for all black Americans; but, again, because HBCUs have taken on the mission of making sure that African-Americans are ready.  This was a tsunami.

MR. MARTIN:  Lezli, when it came to – again, I’m just going to use Parent Plus as an example.  I was told some 14,000 students were impacted.  That’s $168 million, if you look at, on average, $12 tuition –


MR. MARTIN:  — that was not going to those institutions.  For HBCUs, nearly $200 million is a heck of a whole lot of money that’s not in those universities in the fall and spring.

DR. BASKERVILLE:  14,616 students were directly impacted; but importantly, the nation is impacted.  President Obama has called on America to move to have 60 percent of all Americans with a two- or four-year college degree by 2020.  In order to do that, the nation has got to educate 8 million addition[al] Americans.  We’ve got to educate 2 million additional African-Americans.  157,000 of those students must come through HBCUs, and in order to do that, we have to have the finances commensurate with output.

So, HBCUs are just 3 percent of America’s colleges and universities; but as your introductory statements indicate, we’re doing the lion’s share of graduating African-Americans in growth and high-needs areas – in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics – 60 percent in STEM.  We’re graduating in excess of 50 percent of all African-American teachers today.  President Obama said we need 100,000 new STEM teachers.  So, if we’re graduating 60 percent of African-Americans in STEM and 50 percent of African-American teachers, if you imperil HBCUs, and certainly if you make it so that parents who are prepared to help their students go to college and students who are prepared and aspire to get a degree cannot, the nation cannot realize its agenda of becoming first in the world.

MR. MARTIN:  What’s the roadmap?  How do we get there – because, obviously, you see shrinking state budgets?  You see universities across the country raising tuition.  Students and their parents are protesting that.  And so what is that roadmap?  Because, look, it’s not going to necessarily get better as long as you’re still in an economy that’s not growing fast enough.

DR. SPRIGGS:  Right.  So, of course we have to get the economy growing fast enough.  Fortunately, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is down from a year ago.  We just had the numbers come out today – on Friday, and that showed that we are doing better, but we are still at double-digit unemployment for African-Americans among adult women and among adult men – the parents who’re going to pay for these kids going to school.  So, we have to get that addressed, as you said.

But we also have to be very sensitive, as we go through this recovery, to things like the use of credit scores – both when it comes to the screens that some employers are using to winnow out workers, and we know that the use of credit scores has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans.  So, this is going to hurt both employment opportunities.  We know what happened in the housing market for African-Americans.  There’re a lot of African-American families who have scars on their credit scores because of foreclosure, so we have to come up with better tools for assessing the ability of these parents to pay.  The tragedy in this case was that these were parents who were in the process of paying, so they had a track record of making payments and making good on the loans for their kids.

So, this inability to use other available information to assess the creditworthiness of these parents, and using something that is obviously racially tinted, is going to be a problem, going forward.  We have to be a lot more sensitive in our policies to those kind[s] of unintended consequences, as you said.

MR. MARTIN:  About 30 seconds.  Lezli, I know you drive public policy, but please speak to – and I made the point earlier – why graduates of these schools cannot sit here and say how proud they are of their universities when a previous generation gave money to allow them to be able to go to these HBCUs.

DR. BASKERVILLE:  Yeah.  That’s a challenge, and you pointed out that just 8 percent, on average, of HBCU alums are giving back to their colleges and universities.  And we’re working hard to get that number up.

[A] couple of things.  African-Americans give proportionately more to their faith institutions than all other Americans, the data show.  And so it’s not that African-Americans aren’t giving.  The second thing is that –

MR. MARTIN:  Which means tithe to your church.  Tithe to your school.

DR. BASKERVILLE:  — tithe – tithe to –

MR. MARTIN:  [Chuckles.]

DR. BASKERVILLE:  — gotta tithe to the church, tithe to the school.

MR. MARTIN:  Trust me.  That’s –

DR. BASKERVILLE:  And our churches –

MR. MARTIN:  — going to be their new campaign:  “Title to your HBCU.”

DR. BASKERVILLE:  — and/or tithe to the church.  Tithe through the school and then give back to the school.  So, we’re giving more to our faith institutions.  We’re giving less.

And also, disproportionate numbers of our students – students that go to HBCUs – go into public services.  They go into public service, and that’s an important part of what we teach our students, but the –

MR. MARTIN:  But the problem is when you have an economic downturn, those public-sector jobs are the first ones that likely get cut.

DR. BASKERVILLE:  — yeah.  And now, we’ve lost 53 percent of African-American wealth in the Great [Re]cession.  African-American wealth is, on average, $5700.  For Hispanics, it’s $6300.  For white Americans, $113,000.  So, as our wealth has constricted immeasurably and more of our students are going into public service, and African-Americans are still giving to their faith institutions at a higher rate, we’re scrambling to get the crumbs.

And so we’ve got to continue a dialogue that says, yes, give to our faith institutions; but certainly, you’ve got to give, and you’ve got to give more, to our colleges and universities to keep them afloat.

But our public tax dollars – we have to get a fair share of public dollars –

MR. MARTIN:  Right.

DR. BASKERVILLE:  — commensurate with our output.  We’re not doing that, and so we’re working with Congress, and we’re working with policy shapers around the country to tell the story:  three percent of institutions, 60 percent in STEM, 50 percent teachers.  And you gave the figure of 85 percent of health professionals.  That’s huge.  Those are the growth –

MR. MARTIN:  ’Kay.

DR. BASKERVILLE:  — and high-needs areas.  And so we need public dollars –

MR. MARTIN:  Gotcha.

DR. BASKERVILLE:  — to explain that.

MR. MARTIN:  Well, we certainly appreciate it, and we’ll keep having the conversation and keep driving this thing forward.  And we’ll still also look for that permanent solution to the Parent Plus dilemma from the Department of Education, so we’ll stay on that.

Lezli, Bill, thanks a bunch.  Appreciate it.

DR. BASKERVILLE:  Thank you –

DR. SPRIGGS:  [Crosstalk.]

DR. BASKERVILLE:  — so much.