Education

Historically, black universities are struggling to survive and reopening amid a coronavirus pandemic

After Alabama announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 13, Miles College president Bobbie Knight began making calls. He knew the historically black private university needed to close its 76 acre campus in Fairfield and come up with a plan to work remotely, but the first thing it needed to do was get its students home safely.

He soon realized that the problem was that some of them had nowhere to go.

Although all universities are affected by the coronavirus shutdown and faced with uncertainties in the fall, the effects for historically black universities are particularly acute. The same history of institutional oppression and racism that sparked protests against police violence in the US has left most black schools underfunded, often on tight budgets, and unprepared to absorb a shock.

Most HBCUs, especially private colleges like Miles that receive little or no government support, are more reliant on enrollment and have less funding than other colleges. Some had financial troubles prior to the coronavirus, so experts wondered how many will survive if the pandemic results in a persistent decline in enrollments.

At Miles, a private university with about 1,500 students, Knight quickly realized there was no avoiding digging into the operating budget to get the job done. This was a problem that required costly solutions.

I had students who came from a foster family and moved straight into the dormitories. Others returned home after the campus closed and found that they no longer had an apartment. Knight had to help them all. The university bought airline tickets for some and fuel cards for others. The president even called a niece in California: he had a student who went in and out of an animal shelter, could the niece help?

Then came the health complications that arose from the crisis. Some students mourned their parents who died from the virus. Others infected themselves, including a student from a single parent household. His mother and sister were infected with COVID-19. His sister survived, his mother not. The young man had become head of the family overnight. His mother’s last wish?

“‘I want him to go back and finish his education,'” Knight said, telling the story. Even in her last breath, the mother understood what was at stake for her son and for the HBCUs in general.

Miles College president Bobbie Knight struggled to find student accommodation.
‘Surround Services’
HBCUs are drivers of mobility. They produce 42% of the country’s black engineers, 80% of its black judges, and 40% of its African-American congressmen. The country’s 107 HBCUs enroll 228,000 mostly black students annually, many of whom come from poor households, more than half of the first in their families to attend college.

To fund their education, more than 75% of HBCU students rely on Pell Grants and almost all of those who remain receive PLUS loans that are borrowed by parents, according to the Thurgood Marshall Fund. At Miles, virtually all students, 98%, receive some form of financial assistance.

HBCUs have traditionally met this challenge with what Brent Chrite, president of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., Called “full service”: a level of personal attention from administrators and faculty aimed at creating a family and to promote a supportive environment that has largely fallen by the wayside in larger schools.

“It’s one of the clearest and most straightforward value propositions we offer,” said Chrite, who became president last year amid a financial crisis that left B-CU’s accreditation on probation. “We think it’s unique.”

Bethune Cookman University President Brent Chrite sees the “comprehensive services” HBCUs have traditionally seen as a source of strength for schools, but also a weakness as they seek to recover lost revenue from fees, dormitories and meal programs balance.
That approach may have been exposed as inconsistent with higher education business models by the pandemic, said Dale Whittaker, past president of the University of Central Florida.

When universities sent students home during the pandemic, many reimbursed the room

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