Historically Black Colleges and Universities Face Novel Challenges for the Upcoming Fall Semester
By Madyson Fitzgerald
Facing a lack of funding from the government and an expected decrease in fall enrollment, HBCUs have begun to feel the strain from closing their doors amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite surpassing two million cases of COVID-19 last week, schools in the U.S. have steadily begun to release plans of reopening in the fall, including Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Richmond, University of Virginia and more. With tentative plans for welcoming students back on campus, many are expecting to see a completely altered fall semester.
Some schools, however, have had a harder time finding their footing amid the coronavirus pandemic. Historically Black Colleges and Universities continue to face a lack of financial and social backing to continue operations.
HBCUs have historically received less funding as institutions serving those who are underprivileged. President Larry Robinson of Florida A&M University worries not just about his school, but his students, as he said in an interview with USA Today.
“I’m worried about the financial impact on the families,” he said, “not just from this fall, but in the future as well, because of the fact that they don’t have a financial cushion to get through this tough time and the fact that the recovery for persons of color in these previous economic downturns has been longer. We will get through this, but some will take longer than others.”
Much of the financial hardship that HBCUs face is a result of institutional racism present in the American education system. The implicit biases held by the government oftentimes translates to less support for schools serving communities of color. This leaves many HBCUs depending on enrollment alone to keep operations going, including grants and student loans that students earn through the financial aid process.
Virginia State University President Makola M. Abdullah explained in an interview with CNN that the economic downturn from the pandemic has put schools like his in danger. “We are very concerned that without the adequate federal and state support, many institutions that serve the underserved might not be around,” Abdullah said. ““We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.”
Growth4VA, a campaign launched by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council to promote reform in Virginia’s colleges and universities, did a study in 2017 regarding key facts of the state’s higher education system. The starkest finding was that Virginia has seen a continued decrease in funding for institutions of higher learning. Since 2001, Virginia has continuously cut higher education funding by a total of 44.7 percent.
Cuts in state funding has led to higher tuition rates at all of Virginia’s schools. Moreover, Virginia provides the 44th lowest public support per student. In fact, the correlation between state funding cuts and tuition increases since 2001 is practically 1:1.
Despite these daunting figures, Virginia lawmakers created an initiative to freeze tuition at all public institutions this past school year. Their hope is to continue this initiative, but with the coronavirus pandemic expected to progress through the summer, there is no say as to whether it will be maintained.
In a Q&A with The Washington Post, Ivory Toldson, a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University said that technology also proves to be another obstacle. “The challenge of abruptly moving to a virtual learning environment may adversely impact HBCUs more than other schools,” he said. “Most do not have the technical capacity to deliver quality online classes. Even those with the technical capacity will have challenges if their students do not have adequate computers and broadband at home.”
Marybeth Gasman, a professor of education at Rutgers University, said that rainy day funds were largely inaccessible. “Because HBCUs have small or relatively small endowments and because they educate some of the most socioeconomically vulnerable students, they face a disproportionately high level of risk right now,” she explained.
“HBCUs are similar to families without substantial savings,” she continued. “HBCUs are funded heavily by tuition. Any drop in enrollment, which could happen by way of students not returning next year or not enrolling next year, will be devastating.”
Despite the aid given to schools through HEERF funds in the past weeks, closing their doors has cost HBCUs millions of dollars. With fall enrollment expected to drop, these schools are urgently calling out to the government and the community for help to continue providing education for those who need it.