After Alabama announced its first confirmed COVID-19 case March 13, Miles College President Bobbie Knight began making calls. She knew the historically black private college would have to shut down its 76-acre campus in Fairfield and devise a plan to operate remotely, but the first thing she needed to do was get her students back home safely.
The problem, she soon realized, was that some of them had no place to go.
Though all colleges have been hurt by coronavirus closures and face uncertainties in the fall, the impact is particularly acute for historically black colleges and universities. The same history of oppression and institutional racism that ignited protests against police violence across the USA has left most black schools underfunded, often operating on shoestring budgets and unprepared to absorb sudden shock.
Most HBCUs – particularly private colleges such as Miles that receive little to no state support – depend more on enrollment and have smaller endowments than other universities. Some were struggling financially before the coronavirus, leaving experts to wonder how many will survive if the pandemic leads to a prolonged dip in enrollment.
At Miles, a private college of about 1,500 students, Knight quickly discovered there would be no way to avoid digging into the operating budget to meet the task at hand. This was a problem that required expensive solutions.
She had students who had aged out of foster care and moved straight into the dorms. Others who returned home after campus had closed to find they no longer had a place to live. Knight had to help them all. The college purchased plane tickets for some and gas cards for others. The president even phoned a niece in California – she had a student who was in and out of a shelter, could the niece help?
Then came health complications from the crisis. Some students were grieving for parents who had died from the virus. Others were infected themselves, including one student from a single-parent household. His mother and sister had come down with COVID-19. His sister survived, his mother did not. The young man had become head of household overnight. His mother's dying wish?
“ ‘I want you to go back and finish your education,’ ” Knight said, relaying the story. Even on her last breath, the mother understood what was at stake – for her son and for HBCUs overall.
HBCUs are mobility drivers. They produce 42% of the country’s black engineers, 80% of its black judges and 40% of its African American members of Congress. The country's 107 HBCUs enroll 228,000 primarily black students annually, many from poor households, more than half among the first in their families to attend university.
To fund their education, more than 75% of HBCU students rely on Pell Grants and almost all of those remaining receive PLUS loans borrowed by parents, according to the Thurgood Marshall Fund. At Miles, practically the entire student body, 98%, receive some form of financial aid.
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HBCUs have traditionally met this challenge with an approach Brent Chrite, the president of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, called "wraparound services": a level of personal attention from administrators and faculty intended to promote a supportive, family atmosphere that's largely fallen by the wayside at larger schools.
“It’s one of the more clear and distinct value propositions we offer," said Chrite, who became president last year amid a financial crisis that left B-CU's accreditation on probation. "We feel it is powerfully unique.”
That approach may have been exposed by the pandemic as out of step with higher education business models, said Dale Whittaker, a former president of the University of Central Florida.
When colleges sent students home during the pandemic, many refunded payments for room and board and lost income from other services such as bookstores. The resulting budget holes have created a crisis, especially for small, residential colleges that depended on fees generated by the wraparound service approach, said Whittaker, a senior adviser to Grant Thornton Higher Education Practice, an independent audit and advisory firm, who's been researching universities' responses to COVID-19.
Schools can no longer afford to rely "on auxiliary services – dining, athletics, bookstores, residence halls – as a dependable revenue stream," he said. "My point is that the idea you can count on that $2 million or $3 million in your budget (from those programs) is a thing of the past."
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The effects of the coronavirus mean online learning in some form is likely to continue to be a reality for college students. Providing a higher level of service – much less charging for it – becomes problematic.
“As a smaller institution, we rely very heavily on (the fees from) the auxiliary services,” such as fees for athletics, student affairs, health services, police, dining and housing, said Peggy Valentine, the chancellor at Fayetteville State University. “If students aren’t living on campus, then we don’t really have the resources.”
In the short term, the loss of those fees could affect the sustainability of sports programs and the ability of colleges to pay back their debts on new campus buildings, she said. In the longer term, the very nature of HBCUs could be altered.
“If everything is online, it will be a different university,” Valentine said.
When the spring semester started, fewer than 10% of courses offered at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee were available online. The school had plans to increase that figure to 25% within two years – then COVID-19 compelled it to switch everything to online in a matter of days.
“That was a remarkable transformation, and I emphasize the word transformation, that our faculty, staff and students did, in about a week’s time,” Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson said.
“We didn’t have a choice,” Robinson said. “We had to provide for the continuation of our students’ education, the graduation of our students. We were all-in in making this happen.”
FAMU's Camryn Williams, a fourth-year occupational therapy student from Orlando, counts herself among the lucky students. Her greatest challenge was finding space for classwork while her father and stepmother also worked from home.
“Students, faculty and staff were all caught off guard from the onset of COVID-19, and everyone was forced to adjust to the new normal,” she said.
At least she could get online with no trouble. Distance learning was complicated for HBCUs because 34% of black Americans don’t have high-speed internet, and 42% are without personal computers. Many school administrators were surprised to find that a number of faculty lacked home computers capable of running online learning platforms.
At Bethune-Cookman, Chrite said the school made the transition to online learning in eight to nine days. "It was as impressive a pivot as I’ve ever seen," he said, adding that many of the faculty were accustomed to the traditional face-to-face lecture. "What was amazing is some (faculty) don’t have laptops. We trained them all, got them acquainted enough to do some things. And this is as it should be."
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Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, secured 700 computers for distribution to students who needed one to continue their degree programs online. Miles College purchased laptops and broadband discount cards for students and faculty who lacked the hardware and high-speed internet access necessary to interface online.
Though some of those costs, including the refunds for housing and meal plans, were covered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that Congress approved in March, it wasn't enough to make the colleges whole.
If additional aid isn't forthcoming in a new relief bill, colleges could face even more expenses in the fall: masks and other protective gear; disinfectant materials; additional technology needs for students.
That's just to get things reopened; an even bigger impact could come from declining revenue if enrollment drops significantly.
"Our financial issues are really just beginning,” Miles College's Knight said.
Will students disappear?
Like colleges across the country, HBCUs are bracing for what fall enrollment could look like. Florida A&M projects an enrollment of 10,000 students – the same as last year – but is preparing for drops of as much as 20%.
Xavier McClinton, the incoming student government president at FAMU, predicted his fellow classmates would continue "to make the best out of the situation.” But he conceded that the disruption to classes caused a mixed reaction among students.
“I think the students understand about the health environment about the pandemic and how important it is for us to be safe," said McClinton, a fourth-year economics major from Brunswick, Georgia. "There is some mixed consensus about coming back, a combination of health concerns and safety concerns.”
Marybeth Gasman, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions, worries about HBCUs that are so reliant on tuition income.
"I think enrollments will be down across the country," Gasman said. "But HBCUs are so enrollment-driven, that could be a big issue. They really have to be pounding the pavement around enrollment right now."
That could be tough as black families struggle to recover from the coronavirus. Data from cities and states across the country shows an overrepresentation of African American hospitalizations and deaths from the virus, while black unemployment has more than doubled, surpassing 16% in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"These families are the first hit and take the longest to recover," said Whittaker, the higher education adviser. "We might not see the impact on HBCUs until (next) spring or even (later) next year. My concern for presidents is these are the students that will disappear invisibly, quietly. You won’t hear from them. The concern is once they do leave, it will be very hard to get them back into higher education."
Florida A&M's Robinson shared those concerns.
“I’m worried about the financial impact on the families," he said, "not just from this fall, but in the future as well, because of the fact that they don’t have a financial cushion to get through this tough time and the fact that the recovery for persons of color in these previous economic downturns has been longer. We will get through this, but some will take longer than others.”
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Like many black families, HBCUs don't have a lot of cushion to absorb the losses of a slow recovery.
The Department of Education’s heightened cash monitoring list – a record of institutions under additional oversight of the dispersal of federal student aid funds – includes at least eight HBCUs, some of whom as a requirement of their status will need to self-finance their own financial aid up front, amounting to millions, to be reimbursed at a later date. It's a situation that would put tremendous strain on an already cash-strapped school.
For small private colleges that typically charge double or triple the tuition and room-and-board fees of public schools, the pandemic’s impact on the livelihoods of African American families may send them elsewhere.
University of New Orleans economist Gregory Price said the effect could be “epoch-making.”
“I hate to sound alarmist, but if they cannot self-finance their own student financial aid ... they could be forced to take some drastic measures, in fact, maybe even close," he said. "And if they don't close it may set them up for a loss of accreditation down the road, which will certainly spell their doom.”
'Sense of community'
If HBCUs are to find a vaccine for pandemic-induced financial woes, the key may lie in the personal-service nature that added to their vulnerability in the first place.
Gasman, who keeps tabs on all HBCUs as part of her work, said they've gone to great lengths to preserve a nurturing environment, even with everyone online.
"One of the things we’ve noticed is they are working really, really hard to foster a sense of community," she said. "That’s a big deal. Some might argue that this is touchy-feely, but touchy-feely equals retaining students, which equals enrolling students, which equals alumni donations, which equals an overwhelming positive impression of the institution."
Florida A&M enlisted the help of students, as well as alumni from across the country, to promote the school's history, academic programs and robust campus life during a host of social media campaigns and virtual town hall engagements. Other schools instituted similar programs.
One example cited by Gasman was a photo on social media of Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University in New Orleans, standing in full cap-and-gown regalia amid lawn signs bearing the faces of spring graduates.
"They’re really, really trying to get people to feel ownership and at home and a sense of community," Gasman said. "Other places are doing that. I would say HBCUs are really going all out. There’s a difference compared to other places. And HBCUs are better equipped to do that. They have been doing it for so long."
Contributing: Mark Harper, John Henderson and Emily Bloch