Phi Beta Cons

The Future of HBCUs

It was refreshing to see that North Carolina Central University recently hosted a student debate on the future of historically black colleges and universities. Jesse Saffron covered the debate (which was argued over two days), and his article shows that students at one of North Carolina’s five public HBCUs addressed some big questions.

Those questions included whether closing weak HBCUs would hurt access, whether it would make the remaining schools stronger, and whether or not the civil rights leaders of the 1960s would have approved of what is, in part, a continuance of segregation. (In fairness, today’s HBCUs are more racially  integrated than in the past, and it is possible that they will continue to move in that direction.) Finally, is maintaining HBCUs constitutional?

Whatever the answers to those questions, HBCUs are vulnerable to the changing landscape of university education. In a world in which traditionally white colleges seek the best minority students they can find–and have the funds to help bring them in–schools with mostly minority students struggle to get and keep good students. Last fall four out of the five public HBCUs in North Carolina experienced a decline in enrollment. Howard University in Washington, considered one of the best HBCUs, is facing financial trouble (Moody’s downgraded its credit rating in 2013 and the president resigned unexpectedly last fall). St. Paul’s, a private HBCU in Virginia, stopped operating in 2012 after losing accreditation for financial reasons. I expect we will see more mergers or closings, even if debaters argue eloquently for their continuation.

Jane S. Shaw — Jane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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