Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are endangered. Most are struggling financially and are having trouble luring potential students. The financial difficulties affect the schools’ ability to recruit and retain students–as well as stay competitive. And, statistically, HBCUs are graduating students at lower four-year rates than regular, public institutions.
Now the Obama Administration has decided to focus some much-needed attention on HBCUs.
First, President Obama signed the 2011 HBCU Week proclamation, making official the designation for the week of September 18-24. During that week, the college presidents from HBCUs met in Washington, DC, for a conference commemorating National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the two-day conference. The conference focused on minority presence in the workforce, technology and innovation; and on working with small businesses and developing partnerships.
The two-day conference, titled “HBCUs: Engaging the World Anew,” is part of a White House push to promote the president’s goal of “creating the best-educated and most competitive and diverse workforce in the world by 2020, according to a White House press statement.
Last year, Obama signed an executive order renewing an initiative on HBCUs. He also established a presidential board to advise the White House on matters pertaining to strengthening the educational capacity of HBCUs.
But Lawrence Ross, author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities, thinks the president’s actions may be a little too late. “President Obama and the White House meeting with HBCU presidents must go beyond the photo op,” he says. “There needs to be real resources spent in order to guarantee that they survive. Too many HBCUs are struggling financially, while still providing a need for African-American students.”
Among the HBCUs hit financially are Florida Memorial University (FMU) and Bethune-Cookman University. The governor of Florida made moves earlier this year to give both schools state funding, but HBCUs are private institutions. Private colleges and universities are not guaranteed federal or state assistance.
Southern University, which has had an enrollment drop of five percent since last year, is also facing money woes. The school recently considered declaring a financial emergency, but the board declined. About 60 percent of faculty took voluntary furloughs to balance out the budget. These are just a few examples of the problems facing HBCUs. Whether the current White House efforts will change the tide remains to be seen.