The coronavirus pandemic is not only causing a financial strain for everyday Americans and small businesses but also for higher education institutions who were already facing financial woes.
Many of those schools in particular are historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which are often underfunded and have smaller endowments than their white counterparts and an overall finite amount of resources.
In the heart of Columbia, South Carolina, stands Benedict College, a small Black liberal arts school founded in 1870 by Northern Baptists as a teacher’s college. Officials there say the school expects to lose $2 million in housing refunds out of a $52 million budget since the pandemic has forced students to prematurely evacuate dormitories.
Benedict College President Roslyn Clark Artis said the school is under financial stress and is looking for ways to cut costs, which inevitably may result in layoffs.
“We have to think clearly about the future of the institution,” Artis said. “The notion of refunding an amount this significant would cripple the institution, there’s no doubt.”
In Daytona Beach, Florida, Bethune-Cookman University, another small, historically Black institution, has been hit hard by the pandemic. Like Benedict, dormitories are a significant source of revenue for the college.
Gregory Price, professor of economics at the University of New Orleans, said the absence of students in residential on-campus housing could result in a severe revenue shock.
“Bethune-Cookman is obligated to spend about $306 million to pay off debt it took on to build a new dorm,” Price said. “If the outbreak continues, many of Bethune-Cookman’s dorm rooms could wind up empty, as enrollment was already declining before this pandemic began.”
The financial pressures Bethune-Cookman face aren’t going unnoticed. This month the school received more than $600,000 in gifts from prominent donors including baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, whose Chasing the Dream Foundation kicked in $104,000, and Joyce and Thomas Moorehead, who each contributed $250,000.
Thomas Moorehead, whose Sterling, Va., Rolls Royce dealership is the only one in the U.S. owned by an African American, and wife Joyce, a Bethune-Cookman alumnus and former member of the board of trustees who has prominent ties to the university, are also the namesake for Bethune-Cookman’s Student Life Center.
Her parents were friends with Mary McLeod Bethune, the school’s founder and namesake.
“As a proud graduate of [Bethune-Cookman], I owe much of my personal and professional success to the training and nurturing I received as a student at Bethune-Cookman,” Joyce Moorehead told the News Journal Online in Daytona Beach. “We hope that this gift will likewise inspire other alumni and philanthropists to support all HBCUs but particularly Bethune-Cookman.”
The university has also received a response from the state of Florida as well. They’re getting $17 million in new annual funding. Then there’s the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 28, which provides almost $14 billion for higher education institutions to support the costs of shifting classes online and for grants to students. Roughly $1 billion of those funds will go to HBCUs.
For many schools, the cash from the federal government will go quickly. At Benedict, Artis said half of its $4 million relief package will go to helping students transition to online classes.
Marybeth Gasman, professor of education at Rutgers University, believes the challenge for many HBCUs isn’t just its operating budget, but also how to navigate virtual learning with little time to prepare.
“I am worried about the technology demands on HBCUs, given how few IT specialists many smaller HBCUs have as well as the costs of managing online classes. I’m also worried about students not having access to Wi-Fi at home or laptops — 75 percent of HBCU students are eligible for Pell Grants for students from low- to middle-income families.”
Ivory Toldson, professor of counseling psychology at Howard University, says there is a challenge of abruptly moving to virtual learning.
“Most [HBCUs] do not have the technical capacity to deliver quality online classes. Even those with the technical capacity will have challenges if their students do not have adequate computers and broadband at home.”
Locally, bigger HBCUs such as Howard University are adapting to a new normal as well. President Wayne A.I. Frederick told NPR that money from the CARES Act will go toward a deficit gap the school will likely experience, but half of the unknown amount of monies will go directly to students.
“We also are doing some cost-reduction things on the non-personnel side to try to close the rest of that gap as well,” Frederick said.
Experts and historians say it’s too early to tell whether any HBCUs are in jeopardy of closing due to the pandemic, but schools that are already at risk of losing accreditation due to unstable finances may not easily recover.
Gasman says she’s a little more hopeful. After all, she’s seen this story about Black colleges many times before.
“I began doing research related to HBCUs in 1994, and I have listened to people say over and over that HBCUs are going to close,” Gasman said. “Someone will predict the imminent closure of 30-40 about every five years. They are always wrong. A few have closed but not many. Many colleges are closing and so yes, some HBCUs are in danger, but most HBCUs are incredibly resilient.”