Birthed at a time when racism and segregation barred Blacks from equal opportunities to education, historically Black colleges and universities served as a veritable doorway to success.
HBCUs maintain their relevance in the Black community by catering to non-traditional students — those who may be older, work-full time or attend college sporadically. Now, many of these institutions struggle to keep their doors open, or face merger with nearby schools as low enrollment and dismal graduation rates threaten their futures.
Southern University at New Orleans was once a target of such fate. The graduation rate for first-time, full-time freshmen completing a bachelor's degree within six years was less than eight percent. These bleak numbers prompted the state legislature to propose merging the HBCU with nearby and largely white University of New Orleans, as both institutions have struggled to regain enrollment levels seen before Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005. After meeting intense opposition from Black lawmakers and after failing to receive enough votes in the State House of Representatives, the proposal was killed in May.
As many HBCUs survive from state and federal funding, lean fiscal times could threaten the futures of other schools that are underperforming.
M. Christopher Brown II, the new president of Alcorn State University, located outside Lorman, Mississippi, has been charged with the tedious task to ensure that doesn’t happen at Alcorn State.
Brown has high hopes for the university and has already set into motion several key initiatives to tackle the largest issues plaguing HBCUs, including include stagnant enrollments; low retention and graduation rates, specifically among Black males; financial instability; and a lack of student interest to attend HBCUs over other public flagship universities.
Brown, who became president in January, set an ambitious goal of enrolling 2,000 students in summer courses. The school just fell short with 1,900 students, yet that was a marked improvement of only 500 students in years past.
"It's hard to underfund something when you're growing," says Percy Norwood, president of the university's National Alumni Association, to USA Today. "If you're not growing, if you're declining in enrollment, then why should they fund you when students are going elsewhere?"
Brown has looked at other state schools when creating his plans, which include getting Alcorn State's first-year retention rate to 85 percent, which would match other public universities around the country. Alcorn State currently sits at 60 percent.
Recent reports from the U.S. Department of Education show that African-American college students face great gaps in obtaining college degrees, which could keep them from staying competitive in the rapidly changing global market.
If other HBCUs follow Alcorn State’s lead, that gap could soon be narrowed.