Moody's Investors Service on Tuesday downgraded Howard University's credit rating to Baa1, one category above "junk," citing the financial drain from its hospital, a sharp dip in enrollment, sequester cuts and other issues.
Colleges and universities across the nation have suffered similar fates, but when a historic and storied Black institution like Howard finds itself in such financial trouble, what hope do the other 104 HBCUs have of survival, supporters wonder. And it is not alone. In May, Moody's downgraded Morehouse College's credit rating to Baa1, citing enrollment challenges.
Dr. George Cooper, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, met with African-American reporters on Wednesday to discuss the fiscal burdens HBCUs are facing.
"Funding is a real challenge for public and private institutions. We can't manage their budgets, but I think the supplemental funds that are provided by federal agencies will help them," he said.
He also noted that many HBCUs have new administrations, which also presents some challenges. Using himself as an example, the former president of South Carolina State University said that college presidents don't receive any formal training for their new roles and responsibilities.
"It's on the job training," he said. "One of the things I think I can do is share some real experiences in terms of how you deal with downturns in enrollment, state appropriations and foundation and corporate partners."
Cooper said the Education Department has the leverage to help HBCUs form partnerships with the private sector and federal agencies that could help the institutions boost their bottom lines and program offerings significantly. Howard, for example, is renowned for its communications and medical schools and STEM programs.
"If we bring them to the table and create a conversation, then I believe there's a greater probability that they'd be willing to support Howard," Cooper explained. "And if we develop programmatic strengths for other HBCUs, it would be a great model to apply to them also as we broker federal resources and engage the private sector."
Cooper also responded to criticisms from HBCU presidents who believe the Obama administration hasn't done enough for them. He said he's prepared to work closely with them to resolve issues.
"I think they view me as a peer. We can have some candid conversations and they can give me some directives. If they give me the directives and some time, I think we can provide the support that they need," he said.
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