Morris Brown College, a historically black college and university (HBCU), has been in a fancy quagmire for the last few years. The Atlanta-based school, which was founded in 1881, has been struggling to stay open and pay off debts while continuing to serve its students. Now, the HBCU may get a break.
According to report, the U.S. Department of Education is negotiating a debt settlement with Morris Brown that would erase nearly all of about $10-million the college owes the department. The deal hinges on whether or not Morris Brown can pay off $500,000. If it does, the department will forgive $9.5 million of its debt.
Despite the debt write-off, Morris Brown may still find itself struggling to stay afloat. “It’s still going to be tough for Morris Brown to survive. The Education Department is giving them a fighting chance, and that’s if they decide to write off a third of the debt. But the problem is that even with the latest push by alumni, it’s going to take a Herculean effort to keep Morris Brown afloat,” says Lawrence Ross, author of The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities. “I couldn’t tell you how many HBCUs are in the same boat as Morris Brown, but I do know that it’s extremely difficult to come back if Morris Brown were to ever close its doors. Barber Scotia College in North Carolina lost its accreditation, closed its doors and has been fighting to come back ever since.”
The $10 million debt is only part of the college’s total debt of $30-million, owed to vendors and other creditors. Morris Brown College lost its accreditation and federal funding in 2003 due to a financial mismanagement scandal during the 1998–2002 tenure of Dolores Cross as school president. On top of this, The United Negro College Fund ended its support for Morris Brown. Cross and another administrator were convicted in 2006 of misusing federal student-aid funds.
The debt to the Education Department occurred when the college failed to refund federal aid it received for students who later transferred or dropped out. And in 2008, the City of Atlanta disconnected water service to the college because of an overdue water bill. The service was later restored.
Despite all its problems, Ross says he thinks it is important to keep the HBCU up and running. “It’s important to save Morris Brown for a number of reasons,” he explains. “One, it is one more college for African-American students to get a college education. Two, we shouldn’t be so casual in throwing away a legacy of over one hundred years. Morris Brown has been educating Black students since 1881, and that’s important. However, if it is to survive in the future, it’ll have to understand how it can service a unique African-American student, both the traditional and non traditional. And if they get out of debt and don’t want to get back in debt, they’ll need to improve alumni giving and corporate giving.”
The four-year, private, coed, Liberal Arts college offers baccalaureate degrees in management, entrepreneurship and technology. The school plans to re-apply for accreditation, but to do so the college must be debt-free. Until it regains its accreditation, the students are ineligible for federal aid, though they can receive state financial aid. Prior to the financial problems, 80 percent of the school’s 2,500 students received financial aid from the federal government. Because of this, the school has seen a major drop in enrollment. At one point, it had just 44 students.