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While Howard University rides a wave of acclaim, some Black colleges are struggling

An analysis of enrollment and endowment data finds wide disparities among 102 historically Black colleges and universities and a further divide between private, public institutions.

With the surprise twin hirings of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice.
With the surprise twin hirings of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Two recent high-profile faculty appointments could be a fundraising and enrollment bonanza for Howard University, one of the nation’s most prestigious historically Black colleges and universities. But many other Black schools are struggling.

Some, especially smaller private colleges, have been fighting for survival for years, with weak endowments, aging buildings and steady enrollment declines, all made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

An Associated Press analysis of enrollment and endowment data has found wide disparities among 102 historically Black colleges and universities and a further divide between private and public institutions.

The five wealthiest private Black colleges had endowments ranging from $73,000 per student to more than $200,000, far above the median endowment of less than $16,000 per student. The largest endowment for a public Black college was less than $25,000 per student, though the public schools also receive state aid.

Overall enrollment in historically Black colleges has declined 11% in the most recent 10-year period for which data is available, from 325,609 in 2010 to 289,507 in 2019. Enrollment at some campuses dropped by half during that time. And several college administrators said enrollments dropped further during the coronavirus pandemic last year.

Black colleges also haven’t had the fundraising ability of other universities. The cumulative endowment for all historical Black colleges through 2019 was a little over $3.9 billion. That’s about equal to the endowment for the University of Minnesota alone.

Of that amount, just eight private Black colleges accounted for 54% of the total: Spelman College, Hampton University, Meharry Medical College, Xavier University of Louisiana, Morehouse College, Tuskegee University, the Morehouse School of Medicine and Howard, the Washington, D.C., school that counts Vice President Kamala Harris among its graduates.

“While larger HBCUs often have the funding resources necessary to attract accomplished talent like Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates, many smaller institutions need donors to step forward, contributing much-needed financial resources for us to compete,” said Paulette Dillard, president of Shaw University, a private Black university in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Hannah-Jones accepted a faculty position at Howard amid controversy over whether she would be granted tenure at the University of North Carolina after critics questioned her credentials, specifically her Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The 1619 Project,” which traces the country’s history with slavery. Coates, a Howard graduate, is a journalist and best-selling author who also recently joined Howard’s faculty.

Last summer’s protests over racial injustice brought renewed attention to historically Black colleges and universities and led to a surge in private donations for some. Mackenzie Scott, the ex-wife of former Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, gave $560 million to 22 Black colleges, including some with limited endowments, as well as to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the United Negro College Fund, both which raise money for Black colleges and universities. Netflix founder Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillin split $120 million among the United Negro College Fund, Spelman and Morehouse. Former New York mayor and entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg pledged $100 million for student aid at the four historically Black medical schools.

“It’s allowing the schools to see the opportunity to be bigger than they previously thought was possible,” said Harry Williams, president and chief executive of the Thurgood Marshall fund.

Yet many lesser-known schools continue to struggle. Shaw, one of the oldest historically Black colleges in the South, has an endowment worth just $8,436 per student and did not benefit significantly from the wave of private giving last year, said David Byrd, the college’s vice president of finance.

The college is able to “pay the bills,” Byrd said, but has $26 million in deferred maintenance. Shaw and other smaller Black colleges that rely heavily on tuition are counting on help from the federal coronavirus relief championed by President Joe Biden and passed by Congress this spring. That package will send roughly $2.6 billion to historically Black colleges, though the U.S. Department of Education has not yet announced how it will allocate the money.

The federal aid can be used to make up for lost tuition income during the pandemic, hire faculty, raise pay and upgrade heating and air-conditioning.

“It’s very beneficial to the faculty, staff and students at this university, because now we have some additional opportunities for support,” said William Woodson, financial vice president of Wilberforce University, a small, historically Black private college in Ohio.

A large percentage of students enrolled at historically Black colleges come from poor families making $20,000 a year or less, which forces them to borrow. Federal figures show the typical Black college graduate who borrowed money owes $52,000 in student loan debt, roughly double what the typical white student owes.