When the Supreme Court upheld the consideration of race in
admissions last week, few campuses welcomed the decision more warmly
than a cluster of African-American colleges here.
These six historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)
have long been the civil rights movement's most fertile breeding
ground. It's where W.E.B. DuBois taught and Martin Luther King Jr.
went to school, as did a cadre of organizers working to defeat
Ironically, these colleges might have benefited from a rollback
of affirmative action. Less opportunity on predominantly white
campuses could have boosted applications at these schools, some of
which are struggling financially and all of which are redefining
their role in an integrated educational system.
Founded after the Civil War, black colleges awarded most of the
degrees earned by African-Americans. Integration in the 1960s
provided new educational opportunities, but the resulting migration
to predominantly white schools weakened many black colleges. They
lost students, faculty, and even their best athletes.
Not all 103 of the nation's HBCUs are struggling. Atlanta's all-
male Morehouse and all-women's Spelman are flourishing, bolstered by
endowments. But the current recession has deepened financial
problems at many chronically underfunded public black colleges and
private schools, such as Atlanta's Morris Brown College.
Today, nothing better showcases HBCUs' diverging fortunes than
the short walk here between Spelman and Morris Brown's campuses.
Both feature grassy quads full of brick academic buildings and views
of Atlanta's skyscrapers a couple miles away.
But on Spelman's 34-acre campus, swarms of construction crews
finish the exterior of a new $20 million building endowed by Bill
Cosby and his wife, Camille. Nearby, a modern science center was
recently renovated, and high-speed Internet access will soon be
added to dorms.
Up the road at Morris Brown, concrete pathways are cracked and
paint peels from the empty student center. The school lost its
accreditation in April due to financial irregularities - a situation
that disqualified students from federal financial aid and drove many
From its beginnings in the basement of a famed Atlanta African
Methodist Episcopal church in 1881, the school was long known for
accepting those who didn't have the credentials or money to go
Today, Morris Brown owes the US Department of Education more than
$5 million in improperly obtained financial aid on top of a debt
that reached $27 million. The school's leaders are now scrambling to
raise enough money to reopen in the fall.
Morris Brown may be an extreme example, but it is far from the
only HBCU suffering financially today. As many as 15 percent are on
probation with accreditation agencies. Much of their problems are
beyond the schools' control, observers say.
African-American underemployment has meant that HBCUs couldn't
build safety nets from alumni-funded endowments. Instead, the
colleges rely heavily on student tuition payments, corporate
donations, government aid, and foundation grants - all of which dry
up during recessions.
Strapped for funds
In recent years the most elite black colleges have started
aggressively tapping alumni for donations. Spelman's endowment now
stands at $215 million. In fact, a quarter of HBCU presidents have
retired in the last three years, most of whom cited the constant
strain of fundraising as a reason to leave early.
Spelman's new president, Beverly Tatum, jumped from Mt. Holyoke,
an all-women's school with an endowment of $350 million. The true
gap between the two schools' endowments is much larger, Ms. Tatum
says, because Spelman must support a needier student body, 87
percent of whom receive financial aid.
The problem is even more acute for public HBCUs and smaller
church-supported schools, such as Morris Brown, which can't raise a
fraction of that money. …