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The State of HBCUs: Morehouse College

By Titus Falodun Staff Writer | 10/4/2013, 11:09 a.m.
President of Morehouse College John Silvanus Wilson, Jr., Ph.D., meets with students. Wilson is the 11th president in the school’s history. Photo courtesy of Morehouse College Office of Communications.

Five hundred fewer students enrolled. Seventy-five administrative positions eliminated or downgraded. $2.5 million lost.

All this occurred in just one academic year (2012-13) at the private, all-male liberal arts focused Morehouse College.

Such a tumultuous time for an institution that is considered the stalwart of the HBCU experience represents an eye-opening alarm during a seemingly never-ending climb to stable grounds.

“Over the past five years, our enrollment has declined steadily because the economy negatively affected many families’ ability to pay for college,” Morehouse College president John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. Ph.D. stated in a letter addressed to the campus community, which appeared in The Maroon Tiger online publication. “By the 2012-13 academic year, there were 500 fewer students enrolled at Morehouse than there had been in the 2008-09 academic year. As enrollment declined, net tuition revenue also declined.”

Despite being relatively new to the presidential post at Morehouse (less than a year to be exact), Wilson is no stranger to Morehouse or the struggles of HBCUs.

Wilson, a 1979 graduate of Morehouse, served on the Spelman College Board of Trustees, and was the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities before returning to his alma mater as president at the beginning of 2013.

These experiences have provided Wilson with an acumen that Morehouse will need now, more than ever.

“It gave me a broad view of higher education in America, and a broad view of HBCUs, was truly an amazing pathway to a presidency,” Wilson told The Atlanta Voice.

“It was rich in so many ways, in terms of understanding the funding of structure in higher education, the policy structure that informs and guides higher education, and getting to know the key players throughout higher education, especially throughout the HBCU world. It was just incomparable.”

Ironically, it is that same White House initiative, along with the federal government as a whole, that many HBCU administrators are decrying, since the changes made to the Parent PLUS loan standards without the HBCU administrators’ input.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a public apology to the leaders of the nation’s HBCUs for that oversight.

“I have talked with many of the people in this room about the PLUS Loan challenges, and I know it’s been hard, it’s been frustrating, and some of you are angry,” Duncan told the crowd of HBCU presidents, administrators and faculty who attended the National HBCU Week Conference in Washington, D.C. “I am not satisfied with the way we handled the updating of PLUS Loans, and I apologize for that.”

In the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, HBCUs (along with most post-secondary schools) are wading through troubled waters, while promising affordable and worthwhile educational experiences.

The recent sudden resignation of Sidney A. Ribeau, president at Howard University, sends a jolt to throughout HBCU system that no one is safe. Prior to Ribeau’s unexpected departure, Howard announced that 75 employees would be laid off in June. This followed a year in which the university lost $7 million in tuition.