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Reggie Culpepper
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Apart No More? HBCUs Heading Into an Era of Change
Posted By: Reggie Culpepper on January 19, 2010

As the economic downturn grows longer and more severe, it’s hard to find any proposals to cut costs that can be taken completely off the table. Programs that were recently considered untouchable have now been placed under the budgetary microscope.

In a couple of states — Mississippi and Georgia — government officials have even started questioning the status of public HBCUs — historically black colleges and universities. By doing so, however, those officials might only be speeding up a process of HBCUs becoming mainstream that is complete in West Virginia and is well under way in North Carolina.

HBCU is an official designation given by the federal government in the Education Act of 1965 to all institutions of higher education that had been created primarily to educate African-Americans. Such schools are eligible to receive special types of federal funding. Colleges that were either founded after 1964 or had a predominantly white student body at that time are not considered HBCUs.

HBCUs do not discriminate in admissions. They are open to everybody who meets their admissions criteria, and most public HBCUs have significant non-black populations.

In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour recently proposed that the state’s three HBCUs be combined into one. His intent was to save money by eliminating duplicate programs and administrative positions. The idea was met with a loud outcry by the schools’ supporters. An Inside Higher Ed article quoted one black educator, Julius Chambers (the former president of North Carolina Central University) as saying the move “is obviously a slap at black colleges.”

Barbour’s plan is not likely to produce the savings he anticipates without a serious reduction in the services provided. Because the three schools are geographically dispersed, combining programs to cut costs will mean that many courses and majors previously offered will simply unavailable on some of the campuses.

Earlier in the year, Georgia state Sen. Seth Harp suggested that two public HBCUs join with two non-HBCUs in the same cities: Savannah State with Armstrong Atlantic State and Albany State with Darton College. His proposal was greeted immediately with an adverse reaction as well.

Yet his proposal would likely result in considerable savings (although no action has been taken on it thus far). By combining schools in the same city, the mergers would allow the schools to eliminate many duplicate positions in the administrations, some of them with six-figure salaries. And there would be no reason to get rid of academic programs if departments are combined.

Although any proposal negatively affecting HBCUs is likely to encounter some political resistance, major changes might be inevitable. For instance, in West Virginia, the state’s two public HBCUs have gradually become predominantly white. Bluefield State College is now only 12 percent black, and West Virginia State University is only 17 percent black.

In North Carolina, which has the most four-year HBCUs in the country, there have been no such proposals — yet. But at all five of the state HBCUs, the proportion of non-black students has risen above 10 percent. In some specific programs, such as N.C. Central University’s law school, African-Americans are now a minority.

These changes are likely to affect two UNC schools the most. The percentage of black undergraduate students at Elizabeth City State University has dropped to 79.7 for the 2009-10 school year, while at Fayetteville State University, it has fallen to only 72.1 percent.

These two schools share an important difference from the other three HBCUs in North Carolina. While the other three universities are in either the Triangle or Triad, where there are multiple UNC campuses, ECSU and FSU are the only public universities within a reasonable commuting distance in their regions of the state.

The Fayetteville area also has several military bases, which may explain why FSU is the most racially diverse of the five UNC HBCUs. Cooperation between the UNC system and the military is growing, and the high probability of future joint endeavors suggests there will be a greater military presence on campus.

ECSU has also added a couple of programs that should increase the non-black campus population. One is a branch of UNC-Chapel Hill’s pharmacy program. The other is an aviation school.
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