This morning I made two small online holiday donations.
The first went directly to my alma mater, historically Black Wilberforce University. My other gift went to the Tom Joyner foundation, a non-profit brought to life by the radio morning talk show host, which has raised more than $50 million for Black Colleges since 1998.
My tiny contributions won’t be enough to cover even the cost of books for one student during the upcoming spring semester. But matched by 10,000 more like mine, we would, together, be able to help the 39 private historically Black institutions of higher learning educate tens of thousands of young people.
We have a responsibility to help them keep their lights on during one of the most difficult financial times in the history of the schools. HBCUs account for only about 3 percent of the total number of colleges in the United States, but they confer a remarkable 23.6 percent of baccalaureate degrees and almost 25 percent of all the post-graduate degrees to African Americans. Some 75 percent of HBCU grads are from lower-income families.
There are about 100 historically Black colleges and universities in the United States, but only about 39 of them are private. While all of them are struggling to balance their budgets, times are especially difficult for the private colleges.
Taxpayer funding provides a little more stability for the state-run schools. On the other hand, most of the private colleges that comprise the member institutions of the United Negro College Fund, are fighting to stay above water as they face dwindling enrollment, rising operating costs, cuts to direct federal and state funding, and a decrease in donations from alumni and corporate benefactors in a downturned economy.
Wilberforce, for example, needs at least $2 million just to keep operating through the next school year. Last week, Spelman College sent a heartfelt plea via e-mail to alumnae, soliciting their support to help current students pay tuition and fees.
We shake our heads in disbelief when we hear tragic news stories of urban crime or violence involving young people. Yet, the one avenue that has been most successful historically in transforming the lives of troubled youths and other young people from all corners of the country -- and world -- is in jeopardy.
Between 1980 and 1999, the cost of four years of college at private universities rose by 136 percent. The costs at state schools aren’t far behind. In that same time period, public university tuition shot up by a shocking 114 percent.
Meanwhile, the percentage of tuition that Pell Grants cover has seen a remarkable slip: from 84 percent in 1975 to about 30 percent in 2006. Pell Grants were created specifically to help students from low- and middle-income families afford college.
The Obama administration is taking steps to address the problem, but not much of what it’s doing immediately – simplifying financial aid forms – promises to arrest the problem. To its credit, though, the government is proposing a plan to increase financial aid to lower-income families by 75 percent over the next 10 years, by directly funding scholarship programs like Pell grants.
“Commitment is a less scary word than entitlement,” says President Obama, talking about college costs. “That’s what the country needs when it comes to higher education for its citizens who are less well off. “
The president frequently points out how the creation of historically Black and land-grant colleges in the 1800s – and the G.I. Bill after World War II – opened up opportunities for an unprecedented number of students from less-fortunate backgrounds to pursue college educations.
But that has not been the case recently.
Between 1970 and 2000, students from lower-income families improved their college-completion rates by only 2 percent, while completion rates of children from upper–middle-class families rose by 14.9 percent, according to Harvard and Cornell sociologists Theda Skocpol and Suzanne Mettler. For students from rich families, that number rose by a whopping 40 percent.
Many of our favorite celebs easily drop millions on lavish parties. And many of us with more moderate means, spend hundreds on Gucci and gadgets, so digging a little deep this holiday season to help preserve schools that have given so much to us, to our communities, to America, and to the world would be the smallest token we can give to honor their great legacies.
This situation leaves us only two options: Step up and save our HBCUs or stand by on the sidelines and watch them collapse under the weight of the troubled economy with a paralyzed sense of duty.