Armstrong Williams (26543)
Armstrong Williams

It has been an open secret for years that the writing is on the wall for most HBCUs. The reasons are myriad, but principally because HBCUs no longer command a monopoly on attendees created by de jure segregation. For the past half century, HBCUs have had to compete for students among mainstream public and private institutions. More recently, there is also an increase in competition from for-profit educational institutions. However, the changing market dynamics do not tell the entire story—especially since some HBCUs continue to thrive amidst a competitive landscape.

As a graduate of South Carolina State University in the early 1980s, I can attest to the quality of the education I received there. Although I came of age when many colleges and universities in the South had only recently begun to accept Black students, many, like myself, still attended traditionally Black colleges because there were ready pathways through those institutions to attaining specific, job-related skills and gaining entry to jobs in corporate America as well as access to graduate education programs at prestigious Ivy League universities.

But over the ensuing years, enrollment at South Carolina State has declined, meaning that it receives a smaller share of federal government support and perhaps more critically, a smaller share of support from private philanthropists. As I became more successful in my career, I became more actively involved in alumni affairs and giving back to the schools from which I developed into a successful businessman. Ultimately, I endowed a scholarship in my mother’s name that supports training for future media professionals. South Carolina State is a success story in that it retains a competitive advantage in preparing Black students to enter the media field—a field in which Blacks, especially at the ownership level, are still woefully underrepresented.

But my experience is unique in many ways. Several of my close friends, such as successful entrepreneur Logan Delaney, who served as a board member of St. Augustine College, and ambassador Harold Doley, who served on the board of Shaw University (both in Raleigh, N.C.), saw the writing on the wall but were unable to change a culture of institutional insularity that tends to permeate the HBCUs’ leadership.

The college leadership insisted on living in the segregated past. Notably, this meant that administrators, teachers and trustees were more focused on preserving their prestigious positions within the local Black community than on finding a strategy to compete in an integrated market place for students and philanthropic support. Some of their outside board members attempted to get the administrators to consider a merger with other institutions, marketing themselves to students of other races and creating specialized offerings (in information technology, for example) tailored to the local economy. Despite these efforts, the administrators would not hear of it. It would mean that some would lose their unique positions and may have trouble finding similar roles within other mainstream institutions.

As it stands, very few HBCUs have a viable strategy for competing for students and philanthropic money in an integrated world. As a matter of fact, St. Augustine has not developed the institutional capacity to court large donors and establish a legacy endowment that would enable it to compete with similarly situated mainstream institutions. Notably, the University would not foster an administrative infrastructure to provide their largest alumni supporter, Logan Delaney’s family foundation, an accounting of the gifts that they made for endowed scholarships. Contrast this with Harvard (of which Delaney is also an alumni), which sends unrequested accounting and thank you notes every year for the scholarship that Delaney endowed. Lacking a strategic vision for increasing tuition revenues and a strategy for enhancing philanthropic support, these colleges are left spending time trying to compete for a dwindling pool of government funding. Almost all forms of government come with strings attached, and while such liquidity in the short-term can be beneficial, reliance on government grants creates long-term obligations that are often difficult or impossible to fulfill in the absence of independent sources of funding. Sadly, St Augistine chose to pursue government matching grants which required the college to raise an equal amount of private funds. It defaulted on the government contract and as a result, the Feds asked for their money back.

By lacking broad, alumni and philanthropic support and by failing to qualify for government funds, many HBCUs find themselves in a slow death spiral of declining enrollment and declining quality of product. How can they turn this around?

The solution is to realize that educational institutions are essentially businesses that exist to serve a market demand: producing workers with marketable skills. Of course, they also serve a broader function of repositories of knowledge and cultures. But they cannot fulfill the latter if they do not take care of the former. Firstly, HBCUs have to compete for philanthropic dollars by justifying the return on philanthropic investment. Global philanthropy has undergone a significant transformation in recent years from a staid, somewhat collegial world of planned gifts, to a competitive environment in which donors want to see a measurable social impact from their philanthropic efforts. The key word here is “measurable.” It is one thing to talk up the wonderful history and legacy of a historic institution, but quite another to track and quantify the results it produces. How many students who enroll actually graduate within five years? How many obtain jobs within six months of graduation? What is the average salary of a graduate, by academic major? What is the cost per graduate to produce these outcomes? What percentage of the alumni base give back to the institution?

Without specific, transparent and quantifiable answers to these questions, it is often difficult if not impossible for mission-driven philanthropic organizations to justify making large donations to HBCUs. The sad thing is it would not take much for HBCUs to actually develop the administrative infrastructure to track these dynamics. In fact, they do not have to do it alone. HBCUs are in an advantageous position because of their similarities in both student profile and funding base to join together to create a shared administrative infrastructure. Together they can share information and costs to develop system-wide best practices that would enable them to more efficiently allocate scarce resources and obtain additional resources on favorable terms. This is something they should consider. Otherwise, many of these esteemed institutions will soon became relics of the past and that would mean the tragic loss of a rich American legacy.