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Historically black colleges face uncertain future

By Jerome Bailey Jr. | 7/25/2014, 9:19 a.m.
(AP) - Three days before Payton Wilkins returned home to Detroit last May with a bachelor’s degree, his cousin was ...
In this Thursday, July 17, 2014 photo, plywood covers the doors and windows of Gaines Gall on the campus of Morris Brown College in Atlanta. Morris Brown College, a 133-year-old private institution, filed for bankruptcy in August 2012 and has received court approval to sell some of its property. In the last 20 years, five historically black colleges and universities have shut down and about a dozen have dealt with accreditation issues. (AP Photo)

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HAPPY FACES: These graduates can leave Spelman College knowing that their alma mater is one of the financially-strongest HBCUs in the country. (Photo: Spelman College)

(AP) - Three days before Payton Wilkins returned home to Detroit last May with a bachelor’s degree, his cousin was arrested for selling heroin and crack cocaine.

"Before I came to college I was hanging out with him so it’s a really good chance I would be in prison right now,’’ said Wilkins, 24, the first person in his family to graduate from college. He had no college plans until his mom made him apply to Dillard University, a private historically black school in New Orleans.

For generations, such colleges and universities have played a key role in educating young African-Americans like Wilkins.

But facing often steep declines in enrollment, these schools are struggling to survive. In the last 20 years, five historically black colleges and universities - or HBCU’s - have shut down and about a dozen have dealt with accreditation issues.

South Carolina State University, that state’s only public historically black higher education institution, had its accreditation placed on probation last month after the school was cited for financial problems.

Last year, North Carolina elected officials flirted with the idea of merging Elizabeth City State University, a public historically black college, with another institution after its enrollment had dropped by 900 students in three years.

An outcry from supporters saved the school and stirred up support from the state’s Legislative Black Caucus last month.

Morris Brown College, a 133-year-old private institution in Atlanta, filed for bankruptcy in August 2012 and has received court approval to sell some of its property. The school’s student population has shrunk down to less than 55 students for the past several years.

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Spelman’s recent ten-year fundraising campaign had a 71 participation rate by alumnae. The average giveback for black colleges is 10 percent. (Photo: Spelman College)

It is a mark difference for the other undergraduate schools in the Atlanta University Center (which MBC is no longer a member.) Although, their student populations are robust, neither Clark Atlanta University and even the more popular Morehouse College can rest on their financial laurels.

Neither school is in any danger of closing its doors, but both institutions are in need of boosting their coffers. They have both cut staff over the past few years.

But at the all-female Spelman College, just across the street from Morehouse and Clark Atlanta. It’s a tale of tremendous financial growth. Under the leadership of President Dr. Beverly Tatum, the college just completed a ten-year fundraising campaign which raised a record-setting $158 million for the school.

Historically black colleges once were the only option for most black students, who made up almost 100 percent of their enrollment in 1950. That began to change in the 1960s, as many doors that once were shut to blacks were opened.

Now that black students have a much wider choice of schools, only 11 percent of African-American college students choose a historically black college or university.

Abdul S. Rasheed, a member of Elizabeth City State’s board of trustees, said that in order for historically black schools to survive, their graduates and supporters must take control of their own future.

While financial contributions to U.S. colleges rose slightly in 2013, on average at historically black colleges, only 10 percent of alumni give back.