James Hill III loved his visit to Morehouse College. A 16-year-old from Gainesville, Florida, who aspires to attend the private and historically black men’s school, Mr. Hill felt embraced by the brotherhood of an institution that produced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., film director Spike Lee, and many other civil and cultural leaders.
“They just opened their arms and welcomed me in, I never expected that to happen,” he says. “I never expected it to be so warm.”
It helped that James saw history himself. He extended his trip a day and offered to hang around and help photograph Morehouse’s commencement on May 19. Speaker Robert F. Smith, a billionaire investor, vowed to pay off the class of 2019’s student loans; James’ picture of Mr. Smith at the podium was distributed by Morehouse and picked up by media organizations across the country.
“I saw nothing but joy,” James says of the event.
He’s not alone in his enthusiasm – for Morehouse in particular, and for America’s historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, in general.
Mr. Smith’s generosity is perhaps just the latest sign that these venerable institutions may be on the upswing. Most notably, HBCU enrollment increased 2.1% in 2016-2017, even as total college enrollment declined across the country.
Brother and sisterhood are one reason why. Rising racial tensions and a tense political climate have minority students seeking schools that deepen their understanding of their cultural heritage and affirm their identity.
Practicality helps. HBCUs like Morehouse typically cost less than other schools. Black students are also more likely to graduate from an HBCU than a predominantly white institution.
But student debt remains a huge problem. Most HBCUs aren’t famous schools with big scholarship endowments. Their students come from a disproportionately disadvantaged population. Consider billionaire Mr. Smith’s generous gift: The cumulative student debt of Morehouse 2019 graduates could top $40 million – a staggering amount of debt for a class with fewer than 400 students.
Experts warn that crippling debt could stunt these schools’ enrollment gains and inhibit students’ education and their access to these environments. HBCUs can’t bank on annual multimillion dollar donations from the richest black person in the United States. Still, some of their leaders hope the gift shines a spotlight on these problems and encourages more people to invest in the institutions.
“My hope is that we start looking at how do you have a group of students, particularly low income students of color, that have such greater levels of indebtedness, and how do we really start strategically addressing that?” says Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough. “This provides an opportunity for people to think about that and say, ‘How do I use my philanthropy to help that?’ ”
HBCUs, filling a need
America’s historically black colleges and universities developed in response to the nation’s shameful tradition of segregation and exclusion of most minorities from the opportunity of higher education.
These institutions, both public and private, began to spring up across the U.S. in the aftermath of the Civil War. Congress defines an HBCU as a school founded prior to 1964 “whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.” As of 2017, there were 101 HBCUs across the U.S. and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to Pew Research data. That number has remained stable since the 1980s, but declined from a high of 121 in the 1930s, according to Pew data.
Powerhouses such as Morehouse and Howard University are well known. But many HBCUs tend to be smaller regional schools. Over half serve fewer than 2,500 students. But total HBCU enrollment has been rising, particularly in recent years. Their cultural pull has remained strong.
“I think just being at a place that some people say: This place was created with you in mind and you have role models who look like you,” says Dillard’s Dr. Kimbrough. “There’s some value in that.”
More sectors of society are recognizing the importance of HBCUs, especially as high-profile figures like Beyoncé boost their cultural cachet. Candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have released plans for how they will correct years of decline and school closures.
In the context of all American higher education, HBCUs can be a bargain, often costing thousands less than comparable public or private institutions. But that does not necessarily mean they are cheap. A year at Morehouse, when room and board is rolled in with tuition and fees, can cost upward of $48,000.
That’s a steep climb that leads to a paradox: While HBCUs may be comparably affordable, students leave with disproportionately more loans and struggle more to repay them, as documented by a Wall Street Journal analysis of Education Department data.
HBCU graduates struggle with debt because most of them are black, and black families face a staggering wealth gap in the United States: A 2014 Pew Research study found that black families have only $11,000 in savings and assets – less than a tenth of what white families hold.
The Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that represents 47 public HBCUs. President and CEO Harry Williams says many of the students at these institutions drop out because of their lack of resources. Ensuring students graduate is the TMCF’s top priority, as typical HBCU graduation rates fall well short of the national average, according to data from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.
“I wouldn’t have come here without a full scholarship. I would advise other people not to,” says Joanie Bell, a rising sophomore at Howard University. “Financial aid is a really big problem.”
Federal grants are another recourse for students seeking an HBCU environment but lacking the means to afford it. Pell Grants are the most well-known such recourse, but the typical grant size has not kept up with the skyrocketing cost of college since the program started in 1965. For example, the highest grant awarded for the 2018-2019 academic year is $6,095.
“HBCUs are under-resourced institutions serving under-resourced populations,” says Dr. Kimbrough. “If we’re charging $35,000 to $40,000, and 75% of my students are Pell Grant-eligible, which means their families make less than $40,000, the math doesn’t work.”
More than 75% of HBCU students rely on Pell Grants and nearly 13% rely on Parent PLUS Loans to meet their college expenses, according to the TMCF. (It’s still unclear whether Mr. Smith’s promise will pay off the latter, which are federal loans available to a student’s parents.)
“I know that I will be in debt, but it’s like inevitable,” says Alexander Freeman, a rising junior at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “Student debt seems to be the thing that weighs the most on people my age.”
Mr. Freeman – who had to drop two summer classes because he couldn’t take on more debt – was thrilled to hear about Mr. Smith’s gift, but he says something like that could only happen at top-tier schools like Morehouse.
“Morehouse, Howard: Those are household names,” says Mr. Freeman, who wants to be an engineer. “They don’t really pay much attention to schools like Morgan, they just pay attention to wherever the spotlight is.”
That spotlight is widening, thanks to candidates in the 2020 race. California Sen. Kamala Harris, herself a Howard University alumna, has proposed bumping up HBCU funding to improve training for black teachers. And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed an ambitious plan to tackle student debt that includes giving $50 billion to HBCUs.
Some black college leaders are also quite pleased with the progress made under President Donald Trump. His administration forgave $322 million in natural disaster loans (New Orleans-based Dillard benefited from such loans after Hurricane Katrina), expanded the Pell Grant amount and eligibility, and allocated an additional $109 million in HBCU-related spending in 2018 compared with the previous year.
Not only has Mr. Trump helped bump up funding for HBCUs, his political rhetoric may have also driven more students to them. Preliminary results from a study conducted by Janelle Williams at the University of Pennsylvania and Robert T. Palmer of Howard University show that the political climate under the Trump administration and the recent spike in racial-based harassment of black students at predominantly white institutions influenced the college choices for black American college students over recent years.
Attending an HBCU is not just about finding safety, though. Ms. Bell says it’s also a chance to witness the vast kaleidoscope of ideas and people within her own community.
“At an HBCU, I find black individuals who are fully into their blackness,” she says. “The black spectrum is so huge here, it’s amazing.”
For James Hill, that life is the life he wants for college.
“The brotherhood and the foundation – that is what I need in my life. As Spike Lee said, I’m going to get it by any means necessary.”
By Timmy Broderick, Staff of The Christian Science Monitor.
Jessica Mendoza contributed reporting.