Will Anyone Save Black Colleges?

Bennett College in North Carolina needed to raise $5 million to try to save its accreditation. Meanwhile, transformational donations are going to other schools.

Kent Hall, on Bennett College’s campus, in the early 1900s (UNC Library Archive)

Bennett College needed to collect $5 million to survive. The historically black women’s college in Greensboro, North Carolina, was appealing a decision to revoke its accreditation—based largely on its feeble financial situation—and wanted to show that it could raise funds. The school gave itself 50 days to prove its case.

Donations dribbled in from everywhere: $10,000 from a local credit union; $40,000 from Mount Zion Baptist Church; $1 and $10 and $50 donations from students; $500,000 from Papa John’s, which has been trying to rehab its image with the black community after its founder made a racist remark on a conference call; $77.25 from students at the Erwin Montessori elementary school. The money trickled in and the clock ticked as the school raced toward its February 1 deadline to raise the money. With two days left, Bennett was only 62 percent of the way to its goal; one day left, 65 percent; 14 hours, 72 percent. Then, a $1 million lifeline from another institution, High Point University. One hour, 95 percent. When the clock ran out, money still needed to be counted, so the college extended its deadline to do so.

The valiant effort, and the accompanying headlines, overshadows the fact that one large donation could have solved the school’s problems. Black colleges rarely receive transformational donations, the ones that get glowing press releases and New York Times–worthy rollouts. Papa John’s, for example, could have donated $5 million, and the rest of the funds raised by the college could have been put away in a rainy-day fund—or built into the school’s endowment. Spelman College, the only other historically black women’s college, received a $30 million donation in December 2018, which is the largest gift to an HBCU from a living donor in history. But that gift is the exception, not the rule. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s database of large charitable gifts, more than a dozen donations of $5 million or more were made to universities in the first month of 2019 alone—none of which went to an HBCU.

Black colleges—which were founded, primarily after the Civil War, to educate black people who were shut out of most higher education—have been underfunded for decades. That they are now overlooked for big donations in favor of wealthier schools seems like insult on top of injury.

Of course, financial woes like those Bennett is dealing with aren’t limited to black colleges. Small liberal-arts institutions are struggling, too—and those troubles have led some schools to close or merge with other colleges in the past several years. According to Alvin Schexnider, a former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University who now operates a higher-education management-consulting firm, any institution that has a high tuition-discount rate, is located in a rural area, has fewer than 1,000 students, or has a small endowment will likely face existence-threatening struggles in the coming years.

The risk is amplified at black colleges, where even less existence-threatening challenges such as taking on debt to pay for building improvements on campus are more expensive. The lack of transformational gifts means that they rely on smaller donations year after year. And when they are on the ropes, they often have to consider fundamentally restructuring their business model, whereas some other institutions—most notably, Sweet Briar College, whose alumnae raised $21 million in three months to help keep the institution open—are able to marshal resources in a serious pinch.

Getting large donations is “like getting a small-business loan,” Schexnider told me. Donors, he said, are asking, “Where else does this lead us? Are we going to be back here, being asked for money again, two, three, four years down the road?” The goal, of course, is to build a consistent stream of private gifts, but donors would prefer not to provide bailout funds on an ongoing basis.

In 1986, Hugh Gloster, a former president of Morehouse College, offered a prescient assessment. “History has shown that the private black college experiences a very slow death,” he said. “You will have an increasing number of weak private colleges lose accreditation, and they will lose enrollment, and then they will lose financial stability.” He stopped short of saying that the institutions would die off, but he foreshadowed the fate of several HBCUs in the following three decades.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, Bennett’s accreditor, will review the school’s appeal on February 18. Though the school may have been able to marshal the $5 million, it does not guarantee that its accreditation will be restored. The college will maintain its accreditation while the appeal process is ongoing. If its appeal is unsuccessful, administrators have said the college will sue SACS, and maintain its accreditation while the lawsuit works its way through court. Meanwhile, the school has applied to another accreditor, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.

Black colleges are historically important institutions that still produce more than 25 percent of black STEM-degree holders, and a quarter of black education-degree holders. But the private ones are dealing with the issues small liberal-arts colleges also face—low enrollments, smaller endowments—and many of them are doing so without the safety net of wealthy donors who can bail them out in an emergency.