“I’m not convinced it’s done,” said Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a group that represents the country’s 47 public HBCUs. “I think, frankly, there are a couple more years of trying to find the bottom.”
Declining enrollments are a problem for many small colleges around the country, but it has especially hurt HBCUs because their endowments are usually smaller — making it harder for them to write off lost tuition revenue.
Less revenue from tuition, coupled with budget cuts, has led to problems for public and private HBCUs across the country. The private St. Paul’s College in Virginia closed its doors in 2013, Taylor said, and both Shaw University and Saint Augustine University in Raleigh have faced financial issues.
In North Carolina, all but one of the five public HBCUs saw enrollment declines in fall 2014, according to preliminary UNC-system figures.
The embattled Elizabeth City State University — which was targeted this summer for possible closure by the N.C. General Assembly — saw the largest drop, with a nearly 23 percent decline in its student population.
“As North Carolina goes, so does the rest of the country,” Taylor said.
HBCUs are suffering in the long term, Taylor said, because of changes to student loans, high leadership turnover and a competitive market for education — with community colleges becoming an increasingly attractive option.
But the biggest factor is affordability.
In 2011, changes were made to the federal PLUS loans program for low-income families that made it harder for students to secure loans. Taylor said it has negatively affected around 30,000 students on HBCU campuses, resulting in many students leaving or future students choosing to forgo college.
“We’ve been spiraling ever since,” Taylor said.
Howard University in Washington, D.C. has the highest endowment of any HBCU nationwide — but Marquis Barnett, a 2011 Howard graduate, said the school wasn’t immune to the impacts of the economic downturn.
“I saw friends forced to leave school because their aid packages were cut,” he said.
HBCUs will continue to see declining enrollment until a fix is found for the PLUS loan program, Taylor said. He expects U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to address the issue in summer 2015.
Jesse Saffron, an analyst at the Pope Center, said affordability concerns have caused many prospective students, particularly at HBCUs, to re-examine the decision to attend a four-year institution.
“In the past, you could say the tuition might be high, but it will be worth it,” he said. “But now everyone is starting to question that pay off.”
But just as North Carolina schools like ECSU and Shaw are struggling, there have been success stories in the state. N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University has increased enrollment — this fall, it became the largest HBCU in the country.
For the past three years, Akua Matherson, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management, said N.C. A&T recruited students with strong academic profiles, which helped with retention rates.
She said the school recruits stronger students by going into secondary schools to start relationships with students and showing them what they need to do to be successful in college. The university is able to highlight its emphasis on business and science, ?technology, engineering and mathematics majors, she said — N.C. A&T graduates the most African-American engineers in the nation.
To go along with these recruitment strategies, A&T has also been able to keep consistent leadership in place unlike some HBCUs, she said.
“That might not be something students look at,” she said. “But it’s something parents, alumni and corporate donors look at.”
Donations from alumni and corporations also allowed A&T to be competitive when offering scholarships.
Three other public HBCUs in the state are part of a new pilot program approved by the UNC Board of Governors in October. It’s designed to attract additional students by lowering SAT requirements for certain applicants at N.C. Central University, Elizabeth City State University and Fayetteville State University — provided that the students have a high school grade point average that’s slightly above the minimum 2.5 requirement.
“This is really smart,” Taylor said. “Ultimately, HBCUs have a history of finding very talented students to admit — many of whom may not have performed well on standardized tests, but whose high school GPAs indicate they have the ability to survive and thrive at the college level.”
Still, Saffron said he thinks the program is an effort to address enrollment declines.
“For the participating HBCUs, this is all about boosting enrollment, as the previous system-wide minimum admissions standards implemented in recent years have negatively affected their numbers,” he said.
Saffron said the program is well intended, but it will likely not create good results and will lead to universities having to do remedial work that should have already been addressed.
“The truth that many don’t want to come to grips with is that students who are not prepared to do college work should not be encouraged to attend college. Period.”