What White Colleges Owe Black CollegesBreaking News
tags: racism, philanthropy, HBCUs, reparations, colleges and universities, MacKenzie Scott
America is home to more prestigious colleges than anywhere else in the world. And while it is true, in some respects, that any student can attend any institution, the effect of more than a century of racial caste in higher education has been felt as a wave rather than just a gut punch. It ripples into the present. Black people were shackled at the beginning, and once loosed, were expected to make up stolen ground on their own; Black colleges were, too. A damning picture is the result: Black students and colleges are trying to catch up, but they have been held back for so long.
There are a couple of indicators that can predict when a college might close: it has fewer than one thousand students; it has a small endowment; it is in a rural area; it has difficulty raising money. Dozens of the about 100 HBCUs still operating fall into some if not all of these buckets, including some of those that receive state funds. Black colleges are resilient; they have made their way through more than 150 years of oppression. But they are not invincible.
Each year, there seems to be a new Black college that must prove its viability. In early 2019, that baton fell to a small college in North Carolina.
There are two historically Black women’s colleges in the United States, Spelman College, in Atlanta, and Bennett College, in Greensboro, N.C. In 2016, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed Bennett on probation because it did not have enough money. The technical term for the association’s complaint was a lack of “financial stability.” The private college, which is heavily tuition dependent, had run budget deficits for seven of the prior 11 years, and it was down to a little more than 400 students from a peak enrollment of nearly 800 students in 2009.
The college started making changes. It appointed Phyllis Worthy Dawkins as its interim president. It launched a fund-raising campaign, and it began looking for ways to increase its student body.
Bennett remained on probation for two years until, in 2018, SACS decided that it had seen enough. There was nothing the college could do, in its estimation, to right the ship. On December 11, leaders of the association informed Dawkins that they would be revoking the college’s accreditation. The university was caught flat-footed. It had raised $4.2 million in the 2017–18 school year and had increased its enrollment by 26 percent to just under 500 students. It thought it was well on the way to financial stability. “There’s no one way to demonstrate fiscal stability, which is why we thought we were demonstrating fiscal stability,” Dawkins told a local news station.
A loss of accreditation is typically a forecast of closure for a college. After that stamp of approval is lost, an institution is no longer eligible for federal and state financial-aid programs. At HBCUs, where 61 percent of students are eligible for the federal Pell Grant for low-income students, federal funding is paramount. Dawkins had a plan, though. The college appealed the decision and organized an aggressive fund-raising effort. SACS set the appeal date for February 18, and if money was what the accreditor wanted, the college would raise money. In the 50 days before the hearing, they planned to raise $5 million.
Three days later, on February 4, Bennett announced that it had reached the goal, and surpassed it: it had raised $8.2 million in a little more than 50 days. The college prepared to head into the appeals hearing proud, with lined coffers and proof of its vitality.
But the heroic effort obscured another fact: There were more than a dozen donations to universities of at least $5 million in the first month of 2019. None of those donations went to Bennett College, or to any other historically Black college, for that matter. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, as the nation grappled with the ways structural racism affects various facets of American society, several historically Black colleges received their largest-ever donations from the billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and others. But a one-time injection of funding will not make up for more than a century of discrimination. And wealth begets wealth; while some predominantly white institutions were able to build their reserves, Black colleges were held back.
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