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The coronavirus pandemic has rattled many higher education institutions, particularly historically Black colleges and universities, which have seen a sharp decline in enrollment.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment for fall 2020 dropped by a total of 4.4 percent in the public four-year, private nonprofit four-year, and public two-year sectors. But enrollment at HBCUs was down 5.5 percent within the same time frame. The decline was driven largely in part by male students, whose enrollment declined by 10.5 percent.
For cash-strapped HBCUs that rely heavily on tuition to stay afloat, the drop in enrollment has brought some institutions to the brink. In part, that’s because HBCUs tend to have smaller endowments than their predominantly white counterparts. According to a 2017 Bloomberg analysis, there is no HBCU on the list of 90 higher education institutions with endowments of more than $1 billion. A2019 report from the National Association of College and University Business Officers reveals that Howard University, which has the largest endowment of any HBCU at $700 million, was positioned at No. 162 on the list.
“When the prospects of the pandemic were in front of us and we really didn’t know what was going to happen, there was a lot of fear and anxiety, and that folks at the lower end of the scale would be the most impacted, and they were," Michael Lomax, the president of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), which awards scholarships to more than 60,000 students at over 1,100 colleges and universities, told Yahoo News.
As COVID-19 cases started popping up on campuses like North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, higher education institutions scrambled to readjust their academic plans. While state lockdowns and stay-at-home orders soon took effect, many schools made the decision to relocate students back home to continue classes virtually, with the new normal costing HBCUs millions of dollars in revenue in dorm fees and other services.
HBCUs like Washington, D.C.’s Howard University adjusted budget forecasts, projecting tens of millions of dollars in revenue shortfalls. Officials at Alabama State University in Montgomery reported losses in the millions in the spring semester. Lomax said the schools that have been the most affected are smaller schools and those in rural areas.
Despite the dip in enrollment, some HBCUs have been able to remain financially solvent. William Harvey, the president of Hampton University, told Yahoo News the proactive measures he and his staff took helped keep the private institution, nestled in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, stay afloat.
“A lot of people, Black and white, think that HBCUs are all the same, and we are not. We are not a monolith,” Harvey said. “Some of us are very good. Some of us are very poor. Most of us are in the middle. A school like Hampton is very, very good.”
Harvey, whose 43 years as president of Hampton represents the longest tenure of any HBCU leader, credits actions from the committees he appointed last February to protect the school from being hit hard by the pandemic. The committees focused on financial stabilization, infectious disease and prevention, and transformation and revitalization.
“We were one of the first, if not the first, in Virginia to indicate that we are not going to continue to have in-person instruction. If you look now at some of the institutions in Virginia,” Harvey said, “look at some of the HBCUs that have had major outbreaks. We have not had that.”
But canceling in-person classes and dormitory housing also comes with its own negatives. Many students who attend HBCUs like Hampton returned to dire living conditions at home exacerbated by rising unemployment among Black families during the pandemic.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, following the pandemic’s spring surge, unemployment among white Americans fell to 12.4 percent, while it rose for Black workers to 16.8 percent. During that same period, just 13 percent of out-of-work African Americans received unemployment checks, compared with 24 percent of whites. At many HBCUs, at least 70 percent of the student population were eligible for Pell grants for those facing exceptional need before the pandemic began, a figure that is almost certain to rise.
To help alleviate some of the financial burden faced by its students, Hampton University reduced tuition and comprehensive fees by 15 percent for the fall 2020 semester.
“We know that these are stressful times. People are anxious ... because this is new to them as well,” Harvey said.
But even at a time when a drop in enrollment has hurt some HBCUs, Hampton was able to boost its endowment to about $340 million in 2021, bringing in more than $150 million in the past year alone.
In September, the university was awarded $17.7 million from a $126 million Department of Education grant to help students develop new skills for careers that are in high demand. The grant was part of the Education Stabilization Fund of the CARES Act passed by Congress in March, which included $577 million in funding for HBCUs affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re pleased that these federal dollars will assist Hampton University in continuing to serve their students in the face of the current health and economic crisis,” Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner said in a statement about the legislation. “Historically Black colleges and universities help provide a first-rate education for so many students from traditionally underserved communities. We will continue to advocate for them as they support their students during this ongoing crisis.”
Another huge boost for HBCUs came last July, when MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos, announced she was donating $500 million to HBCUs in 2020. Hampton’s $30 million share of that windfall represents the largest single donation in the school’s history.
The Biden administration has also pledged to prioritize investing in HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, laying out plans for a $70 billion agenda for various initiatives, including increasing the federal Pell grant funding.
“We have an agenda that we would like to see the Biden-Harris administration pursue on behalf of historically Black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions and low-income students in this country so that we don’t lose a generation of college graduates,” said the UNCF's Lomax.
While plans for online engagement continue through the spring, Hampton University is setting its sights on welcoming vaccinated students back on campus for fall 2021.
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