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H.B.C.U.s’ Sink-or-Swim Moment

H.B.C.U.s’ Sink-or-Swim Moment

Last month, reporting from a drab hotel conference room in Washington, I witnessed something as bizarre as it was timely: Donald Trump, mired in a race-infused culture war of his own making, receiving repeated applause from a crowd of brown faces. He was heaping praise on the hundreds gathered there for his remarks at the National H.B.C.U. Week Conference.

“You have shaped American leaders, trained American legends, pioneered American innovations, empowered American workers, built American communities. And you’ve made all of America very proud of you,” he told the audience. His claim mid-speech that his team’s support for historically black colleges and universities has been “bigger and better and stronger than any previous administration, by far” was a characteristic exaggeration. But it is true that the White House has mildly increased investment in H.B.C.U. programming by 14.3 percent.

It surprised many that Mr. Trump had even shown up. The annual conference is hosted by the White House, but presidents usually don’t attend. Whether this was pandering ahead of an election year or not, much of the general praise Mr. Trump offered up was accurate: The legacy of H.B.C.U.s is in every thread of American life. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the author Alice Walker and the “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman are just a few of their culturally impactful graduates. Although H.B.C.U.s make up only 3 percent of four-year colleges in the country, they have produced 80 percent of the nation’s black judges and 50 percent of its black doctors. Among black college graduates with a degree in STEM, 27 percent are from historically black colleges. And remarkably, H.B.C.U.s have trained roughly 50 percent of black teachers.

They are also on the brink of disaster.

Rising college costs, the student loan crisis and federal budget cuts have broadly hamstrung higher education. But it’s killing H.B.C.U.s, where nearly three in five attendees are low-income, first-generation students and over 70 percent of students have limited financial resources. Fifteen of them have closed since 1997. Public and private H.B.C.U. endowments taken together are now roughly 70 percent smaller than that of non-H.B.C.U.s. And private historically black colleges saw a 42 percent decline in federal funding between 2003 and 2015. H.B.C.U.s are awarding fewer doctorates now than they did in 1977, and a report found that the six-year graduation rates at 20 H.B.C.U.s were 20 percent or lower in 2015.

While some marquee institutions with relatively large endowments, like Spelman College and Hampton University, face more common challenges, a large majority of H.B.C.U.s are facing existential threats and will need to be transformed, reinvigorated, to ensure their futures are as vibrant as their pasts.

Things have changed several times over since 1837, when the first historically black college, Cheyney University, opened in Pennsylvania. The schools were created to allow black students to enter higher education when white institutions — in the North, South and West — wouldn’t. A brilliant, brown intellectual ecosystem had emerged by the early 20th century: Ask alumni and they’ll tell you about the deep community, the lifelong friendships, the mentors who cared for them as if they were kin — all opportunities they believe they might not have had at predominantly white institutions. And so, even after federal integration, H.B.C.U.s thrived.