Black Colleges Cope With Shrinking Budgets
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
I'm Linda Wertheimer, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
Coming up, we'll talk about how colleges pick and pair complete strangers as dormitory roommates. But first, this is National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week by presidential proclamation. Leaders of these institutions are meeting here in Washington and the recession is a major concern. The economy is endangering the very existence of some of the poorest historically black colleges and universities, which are also known by their initials as HBCUs.
Joining us now is NPR news analyst Juan Williams. Juan, welcome to the program.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Good to be with you, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Also here is Mickey Burnim, the president of Bowie State University, who's in the studio with me. Mr. Burnim, thank you for coming in.
Dr. MICKEY BURNIM (President, Bowie State University): It's my pleasure.
WERTHEIMER: Mr. Burnim, you're here in Washington to attend the conference with your counterparts from the, well, more than a 100 HBCUs across the country. What are you hearing from other college presidents about the economy and your institutions?
Dr. BURNIM: After we extend greetings, we ask how the institutions are doing. And everybody is talking about the economy and just what a strain it's putting on our ability to fulfill our missions.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think that - is this, as they say in diplomacy, an existential issue? Are you concerned about your continued ability to stay open?
Dr. BURNIM: I have not spoken to any of my colleagues who believe that the situation is that dire. We are strained to the point of being able to continue to serve all the students that we have to meet our growth projections and plans, and wondering perhaps about having to reduce our programmatic offerings. But I have not encountered anyone who believes that his or her institution is in danger of being closed.
WERTHEIMER: You're getting some budget cuts. The state of Maryland has just recently announced a round of budget cuts, which I assume affects you.
Dr. BURNIM: That's right. This is just the latest in what has been a continuing, it seems, series of budget cuts, and the governor and our state legislature are in a very difficult situation with revenues falling and the state being mandated to balance its budget. They have no choice, but reduce expenditure across the board. So, higher education is suffering just as is the rest of state government.
WERTHEIMER: Juan Williams, could you place the role of HBCUs in perspective for us?
WILLIAMS: Well, historically black colleges and universities, especially the land-grant public institution, Linda, were created in the aftermath of the Civil War. You think of places like Howard University literally created to educate the freed slaves. And then you move forward over time and, in fact, because whites came in and took some of the land-grant institutions away from blacks - the state schools - then you had to have new and separate black institutions founded, of course under laws of segregation. And many of those historically black schools have come and gone, but so many are still with us.
And then you have private black colleges and universities, notably places like, you know, Morehouse and Spelman in Atlanta, Hampton of course in Virginia. These are well-known places. And all of them, as we just heard from Dr. Burnim, are facing tremendous financial difficulty at this moment. And whereas you would say back in the mid-twentieth century, they were serving really middle class, you know, aspiring black people of all kinds - by all kinds, I mean all classes, everybody was there because of the laws of segregation.
Today, most black students in the United States go to white or what you would call mainstream institutions. But you get in the historically black colleges and universities young people, especially I think in public institutions, who are what we heard previously described as a vulnerable population. These are folks who are struggling economically to get into school.
Oftentimes, they are in need of a kind of a very nurturing and supportive environment that you can find on the campus of a historically black college and university, much more supportive of disadvantaged kids and willing to make amends and work with them in terms of remediation to bring them up to speed. And oftentimes then, you know, there are moments of difficulty, not always the highest graduation rates. But, boy, when they have success, it is something to see, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: It was about five years ago, wasn't it, that your book came out, "I'll Find a Way or Make One: A Tribute To Historically Black Colleges and Universities"?
WILLIAMS: It is. To me, I feel this way, Linda, that when you look at historically black college and universities, it's, you know, they brag that most of the country's doctors, lawyers and engineers who are black folks still are graduates of those institutions because, historically, they were the front of black intellectuals in this country. They produced the black - the first edge of the black middle class that, of course, has gained speed in the last part of the twentieth century and…
WERTHEIMER: Until you got to a moment when somebody like Barack Obama is produced by Harvard.
WILLIAMS: Exactly. Exactly right. And - but they still exist and they still serve a necessary function in much the way that we have seen community colleges grow in this country in the last decade or so. Historically black colleges really have continued to meet a tremendous need. We've seen…
WILLIAMS: …I believe that's almost doubling over the last 30 years, the number of young black people in colleges and universities. And by the way, I just want to make this point that now you have a number of white students attending historically black colleges and universities to the point where some, like I can think of one in West Virginia, are now predominantly white. But the key to my mind in thinking about these schools is the service they offer to young black people.
WERTHEIMER: I'm Linda Wertheimer, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you're just joining us, we're talking about the status and future of historically black colleges and universities. Our guests are NPR news analyst Juan Williams and Dr. Mickey Burnim, the president of Bowie State University.
WERTHEIMER: Dr. Burnim, Juan just talked about the sometimes low graduation rates at many historically black colleges. What is keeping students at these institutions from graduating?
Dr. BURNIM: It's a incredibly complex question. I think there are a lot of factors that contribute to the lower than desired graduation rates. One of them is financial strain. As Juan correctly pointed out a lot of our students are economically challenged. Come to the institution, I like to say sometimes on a hope and a prayer, not knowing how they're going to fully pay their tuition and room and board and fees. Federal financial aid is a great assistance to them, but sometimes that's insufficient to pay all of the bills.
WERTHEIMER: Especially in times like these.
Dr. BURNIM: That's right. And so, the financial strain and stress is felt by students at HBCUs.
WERTHEIMER: You think that's the biggest thing?
Dr. BURNIM: I think that is by far the greatest factor. But there are other factors as well including the preparation in primary and secondary schools of our nation. I think it's no secret that those schools are struggling in terms of their ability to serve the range of students who go to them. And so, many students are exiting high school without adequate preparation to go to college. And yet, it's important for our nation that as many people as we can earn college degrees and be able to go on to lead productive lives.
WERTHEIMER: So I assume that means that you have to offer quite a lot of - the word Juan was using was remediation. You have to provide extra tutorials, get people up to speed, and that would lengthen their whole college experience.
Dr. BURNIM: Often it does. Sometimes people come with quite poor preparation for mathematics, for example, and have to take developmental math. That prolongs the length of time that's necessary for them to pass the required college level mathematics courses, required for their degrees, as an example. So that's another factor. But there are also sociological factors affecting graduation rates. Not all of students who come to colleges these days have what I call the infrastructure, the family support, supportive friends encouraging them to continue until graduation. And so the vagaries of life imposed upon them - marriage, need to support a family, those kinds of the things - cause people to have to stop out. And so when there are stop outs or dropouts for periods of time, that prolongs graduation rates. And so all of those are factors in the graduation rates.
WERTHEIMER: Juan Williams, you said that - you said, in calling your book "I'll Find a Way or Make One," you're suggesting that historically black colleges have been struggling for some little while, that this has been going on maybe even from the beginning.
WILLIAMS: Oh, right from the beginning, Linda. I mean, there was resentment, you know, as part of the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, as I said. Sometimes literally the land grants were taken away by whites who resented the idea…
WILLIAMS: …suddenly there were going to be these educational institutions for black people. And if you look at the funding, especially for the public schools, here I'm talking about the ones where the states have been the primary source - the state legislature's primary source of money, it's never been comparable to the money given to the major white…
WILLIAMS: …institution in that state. So they've…
WILLIAMS: …always been struggling financially in that way.
WERTHEIMER: Dr. Burnim, do you think that - there are 105 of them still existing.
Dr. BURNIM: Yes.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think that that they're going to make it through? I mean, are you looking at the future of these institutions?
Dr. BURNIM: One of the things that we should note about these 105 institutions is that they are incredibly diverse. Some are very small and others are moderately sized - 12,000 to 15,000 students. I think the 12,000 to 15,000 student institutions are in good shape and not threatened. Some of the very small ones, particularly those who are having trouble maintaining their accreditation because of financial strain, might be in trouble.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much, gentlemen. Thank you both. Juan Williams is NPR's news analyst. And he was on the telephone from - he joined us on the telephone from Philadelphia. Dr. Mickey Burnim is the president of Bowie State University. He's here with me in Studio 4B. Thank you both so much.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Linda.
Dr. BURNIM: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.