Few states in the nation can claim as rich a history as North Carolina when it comes to historically black colleges and universities. Yet even as we celebrate their past contributions, the future is less certain.
Across the United States there are 107 HBCUS, 11 of which are in North Carolina. The first HBCU started in the South was Shaw University. Dedicated to training black “freedmen” theology and biblical interpretation under the name “The Raleigh Institute,” the school expanded to serve women in 1866, and within a decade became a full post-secondary institution under the banner of Shaw University.
Shaw is credited with having the nation’s first four-year medical school for African-Americans and the first university to build a female dormitory on a co-ed campus. Additionally, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was launched at Shaw, going on to become a highly influential force in the civil rights movement.
Shaw is also considered the birthplace of HBCUs in North Carolina. North Carolina Central University, Elizabeth City State University and Fayetteville State University were all founded by Shaw graduates. North Carolina A&T was housed at Shaw during its first year of operation before moving to Greensboro and becoming one of the first land grant HBCUs – following a congressional act mandating “a separate college for the colored race.” A&T now graduates more African-American engineers than any other college in the country.
Down the road, 70 emancipated slaves started their elementary and secondary schooling in an unplastered basement at Warnersville Methodist Church in 1873. Within five years a group of freed slaves organized to buy a permanent site in central Greensboro for the school. Hearing the news, New York businessman Lyman Bennett provided $10,000 to help build the campus of what later became Bennett College. Bennett, which has a number of distinguished alumni, transitioned into a women’s college in 1926 and remains one of only two HBCUs nationally that enroll women only.
In Charlotte, Johnson C. Smith University began as the Freedmen’s College of North Carolina in 1867. In 1924, James B. Duke established the Duke Endowment and included JCSU as one of its four beneficiary universities. Five years ago, the Duke Endowment awarded $35 million to JCSU – one of the largest gifts ever for an HBCU – to support science programs, scholarships, and capital improvements, including a 62,000-square-foot science center.
Today, JCSU is also helping catalyze the revitalization of Charlotte’s historic West End with Mosaic Village, a $25 million development featuring street-front retail and 80 apartment-style suites for students.
All told, HBCUs in North Carolina enroll almost 40,000 students, and NCCU and A&T are the seventh and second biggest HBCUs in the country respectively. But enrollment has seen a worrying decline in the past few years.
A significant challenge is that many students at HBCUs come from lower income families, with over 70 percent of them receiving Pell Grants (a federal grant for students below a specified income threshold).
To help pay for college, many families take out loans. But in 2011, credit eligibility for the Parent PLUS loan tightened because many families were defaulting or getting increasingly burdened by debt (half of all HBCU graduates report having more than $25,000 in loan debt). As a result, HBCU students with these loans dropped 45 percent the following year.
The consequence: enrollment, retention and graduation rates have dipped significantly for most of the HBCUs across the state. Elizabeth City State University saw an enrollment decline of 27 percent from 2010 to 2013, and Shaw saw a 24 percent drop. Shaw’s graduation rate for 2013 was 29 percent.
With low endowments and high dependence on tuition dollars, HBCUs are experiencing serious financial strain – leading to conversations about potential closures or mergers. That’s an alarming prospect given the value HBCUs play in our state.
A study by the Postsecondary National Policy Institute shows that HBCUs produce a disproportionate number of African-Americans with science and technology-related degrees. HBCU students also cite a more supportive learning environment than their peers at predominately white institutions. These institutions are economic anchors as well within their communities – leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact and tens of thousands of job, according to a study by the Institute for Minority Economic Development.
Having a robust and diverse talent pipeline in our state is critical, and HBCUs help fill that crucial role. Getting them on solid financial footing will help them – and new generations of students – realize their full potential.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.