Why Historically Black Colleges Are in Serious Trouble

Historically black colleges and universities are about to have a mess on their hands. Because of a sharp change to a student loan policy, enrollment has dramatically dropped. This is not good for the schools—or hopeful high school graduates.

Founded primarily after the Civil War, these higher institutions served the black community when white colleges didn’t allow them to attend.

Currently, there are 105 historically black colleges and universities in the United States, and these include public and private, two-year and four-year institutions, medical schools and community colleges. They educate about 374,000 students, including white students.



The enrollment is declining at these schools because in 2011, the PLUS loans disqualified borrowers with unpaid debts that had been referred to collection agencies over the past five years.

PLUS loans have long been popular because, unlike many student loans, they have no limit and can cover an array of needs, including tuition, fees, books, and room and board. Parents apply for the loans, some upwards of $50,000, to cover the amount of money needed to bridge financial gaps for their children’s education.

“Historically, loans, fellowships, and scholarships have been critical for students at these colleges,” said Rolonda Watts, a radio personality and alumna of Spelman University in Atlanta. “I got through there [college] with work studies, scholarships and loans.”

Watts’ great, great grandfather was a founder of Bennett College in North Carolina.

Nathan Ober, a student at Villanova University, has done extensive research on the student debt crisis and notes that black students “are the most likely among all racial or ethnic groups to graduate with high debt.”

According to the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, an umbrella organization for black colleges known as NAFEO, 15,000 parents were denied loans in the fall of 2011. Many students were not aware of the denials until they reached campus. Parents can appeal, and many are.

Still, that doesn’t solve the alarming crisis.

A group led by William R. Harvey, president of Hampton University and chairman of the president’s Board of Advisors on HBCU, sent a letter last fall to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The group wrote:

This is having a devastating impact on enrollment at our institutions and our institutions’ ability to serve their students. It is having an even more devastating impact on the students who have worked hard to get to college and have had to cut short their college careers, as well as on their families who have dreamed of and sacrificed for their sons and daughters going to college. And, it is in direct opposition to President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Fewer students mean higher tuition costs as HBCUs try to make up the financial disparities that, in turn, make it harder for poorer students to attend.

Cynthia Warrick, interim president of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, recently told Black Voice News that “more than 1,000 students were denied Parent PLUS loans this academic year, leading to the lowest enrollment numbers in five years at the small school.” The small college only has about 5,000 students in attendance.

The Obama Administration has been slow to respond to the crisis. That doesn’t sit well with HBCU leaders, who may sue the administration, citing that enough warning wasn’t given about the loan changes.

But Watts says it is also time for alumni of these institutions to step up.

“Education has meant freedom for black folks,” she says. “It means we are going to have to step up as alumni and fill in some of these gaps. We’ve been through a lot worse; we will just have to get through this one too. It’s time for the beating of the drum. We will have to step up, and complacency is not an option.”

Related Stories on TakePart:

• The Shocking Suspension Rate of Black Students Comes Under Fire in Florida

• Federal Student Loan Debt Nearing $1 Trillion, Depressed Yet?

• 8 Ways to Keep Your Student Loan Debt From Crushing You

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com