Dec 16 10:43 PM

Amid mounting challenges, HBCUs fight to survive

Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band
Members of the Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band await the start of a performance.
Sarah Hoye/America Tonight

NEW ORLEANS — Boom. Boom. Boom.

The sound of bass drums rumbled from the bellows of the Superdome, growing louder and louder.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

Dressed in ornate uniform and headdress, the drum majors emerged from the stadium tunnel, bringing the crowd to their feet and filling the stadium with cheers. It is the 40th anniversary of the Bayou Classic, a storied football matchup between Southern and Grambling universities, held in New Orleans since the 1970s. The legendary battle of the bands garners as much attention as the game itself.

The staunch rivals are both historically black institutions, following a tradition that dates back to the 1930s. These gridiron bouts helped even the literal playing field for black college athletes barred from white-only stadiums and teams.

But this fall, Grambling’s team – a former football powerhouse, led by the late great Coach Eddie Robinson – made national headlines for a different reason. Players boycotted practice and then a game, protesting the poor condition of the team’s equipment and the mold and mildew in their facilities. But this is a story about much more than just football.  It’s about a fight for survival for historically black colleges and universities – dubbed HBCUs – in the fast-changing landscape of higher education.

Rooted in history

The boycott pulled back the curtain on a crisis among HBCUs, said Grambling President Frank Pogue. “It was never really solely football. It was never, ever solely a weight room or the floor in the weight room or mold somewhere on the campus,” he said. “The hurdles we face are more public now, but there have always been hurdles. I don't know of a single HBCU, including Grambling, that was ever equally funded at the very beginning, or even now.”  

“We have always had to make something out of nothing,” Pogue added.  

According to a recent Ford Foundation study, nine HBCUs have had their accreditation threatened since the end of 2009, while five have closed permanently in the last 20 years.

A handful of HBCU presidents have resigned this year alone, including Sidney Ribeau of Howard University, one of the flagship HBCUs, who left amid a downgraded credit rating and a drop in enrollment.  

“I definitely think that Howard is positioned as one of the top, if not the very top, HBCU. You know it has a ripple effect. It has an effect on every single HBCU,” said Howard student government President Anthony Miller.

“It’s really important for us to continue to do what we were built to do: serve those underserved and represent those underrepresented,” he continued.

“If you were to get rid of historically black colleges tomorrow, you would immediately have a huge drop in the number of … black scientists, black doctors, black nurses, black teachers, black pharmacists.”

Marybeth Gasman

professor, University of Pennsylvania

HBCUs were created after the Civil War with the explicit purpose of educating blacks who were prohibited by law from attending all-white institutions. Until the mid-1960s, HBCUs were the only college option for most blacks. Today, they remain steeped in legacy and tradition.

And although the 105 HBCUs represent less than 3 percent of today’s U.S. colleges and universities, they graduate nearly 20 percent of all blacks earning undergraduate degrees. The financial unraveling of HBCUs has put a spotlight on their survival, and sparked a national conversation about their continued relevance.  For administrators at HBCUs, these two questions are intimately tied. HBCUs have budget problems because they serve more low-income students, they say, which is exactly why they’re needed.

About 34 percent of HBCU students were low income, according to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles, compared to 28 percent of students at other schools.  According to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, 71 percent of students at HBCUs receive Pell Grants, meaning they come from families that earn less than $30,000 a year.

Even the Southern University System, with a winning football team, struggles with fundraising and engaging alumni.

“We are an institution of reflection of the people that we serve,” Ronald Mason, the president of the Southern University System, told America Tonight. “We've generally served low-income black folk for years. So it's difficult for us to generate wealth, and we haven't been able to accumulate wealth.”

University of Pennsylvania professor Marybeth Gasman said historically black institutions are generally seen as “relics of segregation,” but said they have crucial role in producing black professionals.

“If you were to get rid of historically black colleges tomorrow, you would immediately have a huge drop in the number of … black scientists, black doctors, black nurses, black teachers, black pharmacists,” said Gasman, who serves as director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions.“You could go across the board – black lawyers, black judges – because HBCUs disproportionately prepare students in those areas.  We need every HBCU that we have.” 

“There are many HBCUs that are taking valedictorians and students that are highly sought after, but in many other cases there are HBCUs that are taking students from areas of the country that we forget,”  Gasman said. “Students that others think it's too hard to educate them, that society gives up on.”

Creating new opportunities

Celia Soto could have easily slipped through the cracks. Soto is among the growing number of Latinos now attending HBCUs.

She moved to Dallas from Chihuahua, Mexico, her freshman year of high school. Although she was an A-student, Soto was unaware of the steps necessary to get into college. After graduation, she wound up working at a fast-food restaurant.

But Paul Quinn College, a small private HBCU, found Soto and offered her a scholarship.

“I don't have a Social Security number, so my opportunities to be eligible for financial aid are none. If I got this scholarship, it's because it is a private scholarship from the school,” she said. “Without Paul Quinn I won't be here. I won't be receiving an education. I won't be changing my mind and people's minds so they can improve their communities, their families, their business, their city and over all the country.”

Soto said she is proud to be among the ranks in a historically black college.

“You see me right here. I'm not African-American. I'm Hispanic. The HBCU’s are reshaping, and, as Paul Quinn is doing, they are bringing these new, these new faces,” she said. “They are evolving from what they were and they are serving new minorities.”

Plowing up the football field

Paul Quinn College may offer a model for the way forward.  In 2007, when its new President Michael Sorrell stepped onto the campus, the school was on the verge of closing its doors for good.

For Paul Quinn to make it, Sorrell knew he had to clean house. He tore down abandoned buildings, tightened the entrance requirements, gated the campus and enforced a dress code.

Then the former crisis manager did the unthinkable in the Lone Star State. “We got rid of the football program,” Sorrell said matter-of-factly, before breaking into a chuckle. “People make a big deal out of that because it's Texas, but we lost every game, right? I mean it's not as if we were playing for the Rose Bowl, right?”

The football team was costing Paul Quinn $800,000 a year, a hit the distressed college could not afford, he said. 

The Fighting Tigers took the field where they used to play their games and converted it into a two-acre organic farm.

“Just to prove that we have a great sense of humor, we've got the goal posts, the scoreboard,” Sorrell said. “We wanted to leave people with a memory of what it used to be, to show them that it's OK to evolve your dreams. This is our new field of dreams.”

The “We Over Me Farm” symbolizes the college's dedication to a different kind of team, he said.

“We are about empowering our students and empowering the community,” Sorrell said. “There is no glory in just moving somewhere from good to great. I don't think that's very impressive. But if I can take you from never believing that you even have a shot to be average, and inspire you to greatness? Well, now you have done something that is worthy of being discussed, is worthy of being emulated and is worthy of a legacy in the shoulders that you stand upon.”

One of the biggest hurdles for college presidents like Sorrell is that despite dramatic strides in black living standards, significant racial disparities continue. 

Over the last 50 years, unemployment and homeownership gaps between blacks and whites have only closed by 6 percentage points and the income gap has only closed by 7 points. Put another way, blacks earn less, own less property and are more likely to be unemployed.

At Paul Quinn, 90 percent of students have Pell Grants. But Sorrell’s measures have turned things around and they now have a six-figure surplus. Nowadays, for Sorrell, the challenge isn’t cutting back, it’s expanding.

“Our issue now, what we are working to, just the most aggressively on, is figuring out how to get 2,000 of our kind of kids,” he said. 

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