South Carolina

Historically black colleges are vital for many. But across SC, they’re threatened

More from the series

South Carolina’s historically black colleges and universities

Read more of The State’s series on HBCUs in South Carolina and what the future holds for some of the state’s most essential schools.

If it wasn’t for Claflin University, William Fairfax wouldn’t have gone to college.

He wouldn’t have been majoring in political science at one of the state’s top schools and he wouldn’t have run for class president or Orangeburg City Council.

Fairfax, who hails from the Washington, D.C., area, wasn’t planning to go to college. But after coming to Orangeburg for a summer program at Claflin, Fairfax was sold.

“I always heard the term unapologetically black, but I didn’t understand what it meant until I got to Claflin,” Fairfax said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Claflin is one of South Carolina’s eight historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. For some young black students, the schools offer the only option for attending a four-year school. For other students, the schools not only deliver a good education, but provide a comfortable environment to discover themselves.

HBCUs are also gateways to the black community. They helped create the American black middle class.

But they’re threatened.

Throughout the state, fewer African American students like Fairfax are choosing to attend the state’s historically black colleges and universities, enrollment trends show.

Between 2008 and 2018, enrollment at the seven HBCUs tracked by SC decreased 33 percent, while enrollment in all colleges statewide increased 3 percent in the same period, according to data from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. (The state does not track enrollment at Clinton College in Rock Hill.)

The sharpest drop in enrollment came at Denmark Technical College, where the number of students fell 83 percent from 2008 to 2018. That has prompted calls from the legislature to downsize the school or consolidate it with Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College.

The overall drop in South Carolina follows a nationwide trend. At the country’s 102 HBCUs, enrollment decreased 9 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to data from the National Center on Education Statistics.

The drop in enrollment is particularly distressing because historically black colleges and universities, often abbreviated HBCUs, rely more on enrollment — and therefore tuition — than other colleges, said Bobby Donaldson, a University of South Carolina associate professor and civil rights historian.

That’s because HBCUs have smaller endowments than other schools, and private gifts, grants, and contracts make up a smaller percentage of HBCUs’ budgets, according to the American Council on Education.

“All these schools, in their heyday, were the places to go,” Donaldson said. “And now they’re struggling to see where they will be decades from now.


What is an HBCU?

HBCU stands for historically black college or university. Federal law defines an HBCU as “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency.”

South Carolina has eight HBCUs. The two public HBCUs are S.C. State University in Orangeburg and Denmark Technical College in Bamberg County.

The six private HBCUs are Allen University in Columbia, Benedict College in Columbia, Claflin University in Orangeburg, Morris College in Sumter, Clinton College in Rock Hill, and Voorhees College in Denmark.

The S.C. Commission on Higher Education does not track enrollment for Clinton College.

HBCUs are threatened

Of the seven HBCUs for which S.C. keeps enrollment data, all but one, Claflin University, lost enrollment between 2008 and 2018.

There are several reasons for this, experts say. However, it’s clear the enrollment drop is not caused by a lack of potential African American students. The number of black students enrolled at S.C. high schools was about the same in 2018 as it was in 2008, and graduation rates among black students increased from 74 percent in 2008 to 77 percent in 2018-2019, according to S.C. Department of Education data.

An example of this is the Richland 1 school district in the Columbia area, where 73 percent of the students are black, according to the district’s website. The district reached its highest ever graduation rate in 2019, of 82.2, according to a previous article from The State.

But large state schools, such as the University of South Carolina and Clemson, aggressively pursue a more diverse student body, which is drawing away some of the higher performing African American students who would have traditionally attended an HBCU, Donaldson said.

Donaldson referred to this as a “brain drain.”

For example, USC’s incoming freshman class is among the largest and most diverse in recent memory, according to a recent article from The State.

“I think what’s happened is African American students have more options than they did 45 years ago,” said Brian Bridges, the United Negro College Fund’s chief research officer.

Still, a higher percentage of African American students attend an HBCU in S.C. than nationwide.

In S.C. one in six African American college students attends an HBCU, according to Commission on Higher Education Data. Nationwide, that’s 1 in 11, according to 2015 data from a Pew Research survey.

Working against many HBCUs is a perception in some minds they’re subpar colleges for students who can’t get in elsewhere.

“When I was in high school, teachers were boosting (predominantly white institutions) to me — Winthrop, Wofford, things like that,” said Bryant Cain, a psychology major at Claflin who graduated at the top of his class from Eau Claire High School in Richland 1.

“It should be known that HBCU students can be just as good and sometimes better than… other graduates,” Cain said.

Historically black colleges and universities are trying to distance themselves from those stereotypes.

For example, Benedict College used to have a “success equals effort” policy where many freshmen could receive passing grades just by showing effort. That policy led to outrage from Benedict College professors and scorn from national experts.

A 2006 blog posted in the Chronicle of Higher Education singled out Benedict’s “success equals effort” policy, blasting it as “a shameful enabler of student underachievement,” according to the article.

“I think the image was, we weren’t a first-choice institution. Nor were we a second or a third,” said Emmanuel Lalande, Benedict’s vice president of enrollment.

Since Benedict President Roslyn Artis took over in the summer of 2017, the school has reversed course by adding admissions requirements and seeking out higher-achieving students, Lalande said. As a result, Benedict in 2019 welcomed its largest freshman class since 2012: 716 students, Lalande said.

Artis also cut tuition 26 percent while improving the school’s financial situation, and the school was named “HBCU of the year” by HBCU Digest, a national organization, according to previous articles from The State.

“We have the opportunity to reintroduce Benedict to our South Carolina students,” Lalande said. “We’re looking to get the best and the brightest.”

Moving forward

While major schools like USC become more diverse, HBCUs are becoming less black. In 2008, S.C.’s HBCUs had 13,318 African American students, 95 percent of the schools’ total population, according to S.C. Commission on Higher Education data. In 2018, the state’s HBCUs had 8,817 African American students, comprising 91 percent of the school’s total population, data show.

That’s not an accident, and it’s not necessarily out of character for HBCUs, Bridges said.

“They’re historically black, not exclusively black,” Bridges said.

For example, the first students at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., were white women, Bridges said. The founder of Benedict College, Bathsheba Benedict, was a white woman, and the first three presidents of Claflin University were white men.

Benedict College, more so than any other HBCU in S.C., has been leaning on new demographics to support enrollment, data show.

The school, which recently hired a Hispanic recruiter, has seen Hispanic, white and international students make up an increasing percentage of its enrollment since 2008, according to Commission on Higher Education data. This year’s class includes more international students than any other class in recent memory, Lalande said.

In 2008, 98 percent of Benedict’s student body was black. By 2018, that percent shrank to 87 percent, according to S.C. Commission on Higher Education Data.

Although Meeghan Kane, a history instructor at Benedict, is white, she said she teaches there because “African American history is American history.”

Being a white instructor, Kane’s lessons often invite difficult, but necessary, conversations, she said.

“I try to be frank about the opportunities I’ve had because of the color of my skin,” Kane said. “I just try to be really open and invite questions and hopefully we work things out… no matter how much I know about black history I’m not a part of the black experience.”

Throughout the country, HBCUs are seeing an increase in enrollment from white students, according to an article from Diverse Issues in Higher Education. One example: West Virginia State University (where Benedict President Artis received her undergraduate degree) is an HBCU, but 63 percent of its students were white in 2017, according to an article by Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Setting an example

HBCUs can also help set an example for other schools looking to increase diversity, said S.C. State University alum Brig. Gen. Milford H. Beagle Jr., the 51st commanding general of Fort Jackson in Columbia.

“When I go to campus on an HBCU anywhere here, there is more diversity than another other type of school,” Beagle said.

Beagle is a believer in HBCUs. Both of his sons attended S.C. State’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program, which Beagle said has produced more general officers than anywhere except the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“For that many general officers to come out of S.C. State is really phenomenal,” Beagle said.

One of the benefits of HBCUs are the small size and close-knit community, which can be a make-or-break factor when choosing a college, students and alumni say.

“I don’t think, coming out of high school, I would have been comfortable with a larger class size,” Beagle said.

Though HBCUs may be adopting the tactics of larger schools — such as recruiting out-of-state or international students, opening graduate programs and having a football team — HBCUs still have a role in serving underprivileged students of color, Lalande and other HBCU experts say.

On average, 87 percent of HBCU students are from impoverished backgrounds, according to Pell Grant statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s more than any other type of school, data show. At technical schools, 59 percent of students are from an impoverished background. And at four-year public schools, 38 percent of students come from impoverished backgrounds, statistics show.

“Many of these schools (HBCUs) are targeting and recruiting and admitting students who would otherwise not be accepted elsewhere,” Donaldson said.

“Whereas some schools have a benchmark in terms of a certain GPA or a certain SAT, other schools are saying, we actually want to create ... an opportunity for students who may not have that superb of resources or credentials,” Donaldson said. “I think that’s right. I think there needs to be a space to (have) opportunities for all students who aspire for a higher education.”

Although HBCUs take in primarily low-income students, and despite S.C.’s HBCUs’ higher net cost compared to other colleges, student loan default rates are only slightly higher than technical colleges, according to federal student aid data.

“Historically black colleges and universities have been institutions of success in terms of being able to take students who were coming with such profiles and yet finding success in educating those students,” said former Claflin President Henry Tisdale.

Tisdale served as the school’s president for 25 years, which is before many of Claflin’s current students were born. He retired in July 2019.

“So I think HBCUs do a great job with the students who have traditionally attended these institutions in creating success,” Tisdale said. “I think that is unique.”

The challenges facing HBCUs are not new

In 2014, taxpayers footed the bill for $12 million in unpaid loans from South Carolina State University, all while the school faced threats to its accreditation, which allows it to receive federal funds and lends credence to its degrees, according to previous articles from The State.

Benedict College’s financial situation was so dire in 2006 it had to borrow money to cover payroll, which left a scuff on the school’s credit rating. After that, the federal government audited Benedict and required the school to pay aid disbursements to students before seeking additional money, according to The State’s archives.

In 1994, Allen University’s accreditation was threatened because it owed $600,000 in debt. Seven years later the school graduated fewer than 40 students, The State’s archives show.

Experts on HBCUs stress they’re not monolithic entities and vary widely between one another. Claflin University, for example, is by many accounts a model of excellence for historically black colleges and universities both in South Carolina and throughout the country.

Claflin has been ranked one of the country’s top 10 HBCUs for 10 straight years, according to U.S. News & World Report. Graduates of the school had a lower student loan default rate in 2016, the most recent year available, than all other HBCUs except for Allen University, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Claflin ranks ninth nationwide for the percentage of alumni who donate to the school, according to a 2018 article from U.S. News & World Report.

HBCUs are a gateway into the black community

There is a value to HBCUs that goes beyond dollars or formulas, students and alumni say.

HBCUs improve the quality of the neighborhoods around them by removing blight and boosting local economies, according to experts, alumni and newspaper archives. They also preserve the histories of their communities and they’re a launch pad for social change.

For the latter, look no further than the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, where candidates have sought to woo South Carolina’s African American voters.

More 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, five, have visited Allen University, a school of 700 students, than Clemson University — two visited there — a school of 25,000, according to The State’s ongoing map tracking campaign stops.

That’s not just because of Allen’s convenient location at the center of Columbia. More candidates traveled to South Carolina State, in Orangeburg, than Winthrop, Wofford or Furman , according to The State’s database of candidate visits.

“For the primaries, HBCUs are really important,” said Kane, the Benedict College professor.

Regardless of whether politicians deliver on their promises, history shows HBCUs are a boon for the communities around them.

HBCUs have a $129 million economic impact on S.C., according to a 2019 report from the United Negro College Fund.

HBCUs directly employ 1,398 employees, according to the S.C. Department of Administration and S.C. Independent Colleges and Universities. However, the presence of HBCUs creates nearly 5,000 total jobs statewide, according to the UNCF study.

By comparison, West Columbia-based Nephron Pharmaceuticals employs more than 900 people; Sticky Fingers employs 1,100 and Samsung’s Newberry County facility employs less than 1,000, according to the companies’ websites.

At Benedict and Allen, “not only were they involved in civil rights, but they produced the black middle classes… not only in Columbia, but those students left here and went all around the country,” Donaldson said.

As HBCUs expanded, they also displaced blight within a neighborhood. That happened in the late ‘90s when Benedict College spent $1 million and committed $24 million to buy land and improve buildings, according to The State’s archives.

Benedict’s ROTC program worked out of a once-abandoned neighborhood store while the Honors College operated out of an old residential house, according to the article.

While HBCUs are important politically and economically, they also have a personal value, students say.

HBCUs foster a family-like environment where black students are the majority, allowing them to learn who they are without feeling like a social interloper, say students, teachers and HBCU experts.

“It’s something about the spirit of the room ... that is totally different for me working with HBCUs” said Gwenda Greene, who has taught at Benedict College for more than 24 years. “We all do lean on each other.”

Students say that makes them feel comfortable, but also helps them be better students.

“I was always the black girl in a situation,” said Claflin University senior Nea Richards, a native of Cross Hill who attended Clinton High School “When I got to my HBCU I didn’t have to be the black girl. I could just be me.”

Listen to our daily briefing:

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer