Spelman And Other HBCUs Cut Back

Spelman College in Atlanta is just one of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to face challenges amidst the growing financial crisis. The all-women's school recently cut more than 30 staff members and announced plans to restructure its Education Department. Spelman College President Beverly Tatum and scholar Marybeth Gasman, who follows HBCUs, discuss campus hardships.

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CHERYL CORLEY, Host:

I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Washington D.C. residents on the verge of gaining a vote in Congress. But first, historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, are being hard hit by the economic crisis. In December, we reported that Morris Brown College in Atlanta was mired in financial turmoil. Now prominent and wealthier schools such as Spelman College have announced budget and staff cuts. Joining me to talk about this is the president of Spelman College, Dr. Beverly Tatum. Also Marybeth Gasman, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, where she follows historically black schools. Welcome to you both.

MARYBETH GASMAN: Thank you.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Thank you. It's nice to here.

CORLEY: President Tatum, let me begin with you. You outline on your Web site the really tough choices that Spelman has had to make to address a budget deficit of $4.8 million. You've cut staff positions, you're eliminating programs, including the entire education department. Spelman, as lot of people know, is an all woman's college. Teaching has often been a preferred career choice for women. So was eliminating the education department among the best of all possible reductions for you?

DANIEL TATUM: Well, let me begin by clarifying that Spelman is not projecting a $4.8 million deficit this year. We were looking ahead to next year and could see that given the pressures on our families, given the losses in our endowment, and given the flat fund-raising income - flat fund-raising environment, we could anticipate that we might have as much as a $4.8 million problem next year. So with the goal of giving our employees as much notice as possible, we announced in February that we would be eliminating 35 positions, 12 that are currently vacant and 23 positions, mostly staff. But among the programs that we are phasing out, or perhaps better to describe it as a restructuring, we are making changes in the education department.

Certainly, you know, there are many tough choices and you never want to eliminate anything in your institution. But we, like colleges and universities all around the country, are having to respond to this recession with planning that will strengthen the institution in the long run. I'm happy to say that the education department, while it is going out as we know it today, will be restructured in what we're calling an educational studies program, which will be an interdisciplinary program drawing upon faculty, existing faculty, including one member of the current education department. We will still provide teacher certification opportunities for students who wants to pursue that as a career option.

So while it is, I know, disturbing to many people to hear that phrase, education department restructuring, the reality is we think in the end we'll be able to meet the needs of students interested in education in a very powerful and positive way.

CORLEY: Uh-huh. Marybeth...

DANIEL TATUM: In a less expensive way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORLEY: Okay. Which I'm sure they'll appreciate. Marybeth Gasman, Spelman is one of the bigger name and wealthier historically black colleges. And if they are experiencing these kinds of difficulties, where do the rest of this HBCUs stand? Is really everybody in such dire shape?

GASMAN: Well, I think that, yes, HBCUs are having a difficult time. I would also like to point out that institutions across the country, I think as President Tatum mentioned, are having a very difficult time. But HBCUs tends to have lower endowments, and so these are a result of decades of under-funding at the state level if they're public or also a lack of access to capital or money on the part of African-Americans. I think, you know, if an institution has a strong endowment, they can use some of that money, earn from it to offset operating costs and to provide student aid. But HBCUs rarely can do this in any great amount, and they have to draw funds from other sources and they're heavily tuition driven.

And as president Tatum noted, I think the last time I looked, 90 percent of HBCU students were receiving financial aid. So it's really hard for these institutions to charge higher tuition. So the combination of a commitment to educating students who might come from lower-income families and also a dedication to keeping the tuition low, and the lower endowment, makes it a pretty tricky situation for HBCUs.

CORLEY: President Tatum, what are you hearing from your counterpoints at other black colleges facing the same sort of turmoil and just having to deal with the same sorts of problems?

DANIEL TATUM: Well, as Marybeth has pointed out, what is unique about the HBCU environment is that we serve a financially vulnerable population. So students at HBCUs are often Pell grant eligible, which means they're coming from low- income families and they need not only the Pell grants they may be eligible for but usually loans. And in this tight credit market it's very difficult for students to get loans, particularly private loans, to fill in the gap they need for their tuition. So that's really the challenge that we see and my colleagues around the country are also seeing that.

To the extent that students are unable to pay, then they're not able to enroll, and to the extent the students aren't able to enroll, then the tuition revenue that the institutions depend upon is threatened as well.

CORLEY: Professor Gasman, there are, at least by my last count, nearly 100 HBCUs and universities - of course Spelman, Howard, Hampton, so those are some of the more well-known. They're all private universities. What about public black colleges? Are they also facing drastic cuts? Or is this really limited to private institutions?

GASMAN: Well, you know, it's an interesting question. I was talking to a good friend who works at a public HBCU the other day and he said, you know, sometimes we get frustrated because the state is always telling us what to do. But this is one instance where it's nice to be affiliated with the state. So - because he said there, you know, we have something to fall back on. That's not to say that they haven't been told across the board that there are cuts, but they feel a little bit more of a safety net. I would say that depending on the state, you know, mainly you're talking about Southern states, historically black colleges have not been funded in an equal way historically, and even through the current day.

If you look at the per person expenditures by states, HBCUs tend to not get as much money per student. So it's difficult for the public institutions as well. But they do have that state funding that they can continue to rely on. So that makes it a little bit different.

CORLEY: President Tatum, how have students and alumni reacted to news of the cuts at the university?

DANIEL TATUM: Well, I'm pleased to say that people recognize that the decisions we've made are in the fiscal - in the service of fiscal health. So I think our alumni are pleased that we're making the choices we need to make to ensure a strong institution well into the future. At the same time, we do recognize that it's a difficult time, and I'm very pleased that our alumni are stepping up to the plate to provide financial support, particularly scholarship support to help their Spelman sisters remain in school. And that, I think, is really my number one priority as we think about the current situation.

How can we help students who have already taken on debt, borrowed money and now are facing perhaps the possibility of not being able to complete their degree? That's a personal disaster for them, and I think really a national disaster for the nation to have some of the best and brightest young students not be able to complete their degree and move on to be productive members of the economy.

CORLEY: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley. I'm speaking with University of Pennsylvania Professor Marybeth Gasman, and Spelman College President Beverly Tatum about the financial crisis at some of the country's historically black colleges and universities. Professor Gasman, what steps do you think historically black colleges can take to kind of mitigate the impact of the recession?

GASMAN: Well, I think that President Tatum said, you know, talked exactly about the kind of things you need to do. Historically, when there have been these kinds of crises, institutions have had to, of course, tighten their belts. They've had to eliminate non-essential programs. They've had to restructure programs. And I think Spelman actually has done it in a very creative way. They are not letting go of their commitment to educating teachers, but they're just creatively thinking of another way to do that. I think that HBCUs also need to, in many cases, streamline their mission and have an institutional niche that they're known for instead of trying to please so many different people.

I mean, Spelman works really well because you can immediately think about what they're known for. For me, I instantly think of black women in sciences - among other things, but I instantly think of that. Xavier, you think of sending African-Americans to medical school. I think more black colleges need to kind of hone in on this institutional niche. And I also think that they need to be educating their students right now about why it's so important to give back and why they have an obligation to help the next generation of students.

They have to continually ask their alumni, instead of just asking during times of crises - and again, Spelman's a very good example because they have continually asked their alumni, and their alumni are stepping up during a difficult time. And that's what you want to see.

CORLEY: Dr. Tatum, is it difficult to attract prospective students when the school has to conduct such belt tightening?

DANIEL TATUM: Well, I challenge you to find any school - majority or minority - that is not tightening its belt. So I think, you know, it's an equal opportunity recession in that regard. But we have 6,000 applications this year for what we hope will be a class of 550. That's the largest applicant pool we've had yet. So we know that the demand for Spelman education continues to be strong. The question is will our students be able to find the resources they need to enroll? That's really the challenge they face.

CORLEY: Professor Gasman, you talked about some of the creative steps that Spelman and other schools are taking. We're looking, though, at a very dire picture for a number of HBCUs. Can they survive? Or do you expect to see some actually shutting down?

GASMAN: Well, I think that we'll probably see some institutions across the board of American higher education shutting down. There are some of the smaller, less well-resourced HBCUs that I do worry about. But one thing to keep in mind is that many of those institutions have been struggling for decades, and so something like this really hits them hard. I do think that there will be some institutions that may end up merging with nearby institutions. I think there will be some that might not make it. I mean, there are always, you know, we've had others that haven't made it in the past. I hope that's not the case. But this is a very, very difficult time if you are operating close to the line in terms of your budget and if you don't have anything to fall back on. So I do think that some of them will not make it.

CORLEY: Mary Beth Gasman is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Beverly Tatum is the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, and she joined us from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thank you both for joining me.

DANIEL TATUM: Thank you.

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