The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid nationwide enrollment drops, some HBCUs are growing. So are threats.

As overall college enrollment falls, larger historically Black colleges are welcoming more students. But old tensions have returned.

The Morgan State University campus in Baltimore. The school is among larger historically Black universities that have seen enrollment gains. It also has received bomb threats recently. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this story said the Build Back Better legislation stalled without the backing of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). Her aides say she supported negotiations to try to find an acceptable compromise bill.

BALTIMORE — Randolph Smith applied to college following a year of anguish for many Black people. The year prior, in 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed within weeks of one another. Protests erupted in Smith’s final summer of high school.

“It was like, yeah, I’ve got to be around my own people,” said Smith, 19, of Baltimore, now a freshman here at Morgan State University. Choosing a historically Black school struck him as a necessity. “I told myself, this is improving myself and improving my mental.”

Thousands have made similar calculations in the past two years, flocking to prominent HBCUs. Morgan State, North Carolina A&T State, Prairie View A&M and Howard universities have reported surging enrollment during the pandemic — at a time when student head counts nationwide have slumped. Historically Black colleges and universities also gained huge visibility through the election of Vice President Harris, a graduate of Howard, and are drawing high-profile student-athletes and unprecedented gifts from billionaires.

Some large HBCUs are getting larger. The biggest is North Carolina A&T.

“We are in a stronger position than we have ever been as it relates to our brand and our position,” said Harry L. Williams, president and chief executive of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports the public HBCU sector. A few years ago, Williams said, he spent a lot of time explaining to lawmakers on Capitol Hill why these schools exist.

“We don’t have to do that now,” he said. “They know.”

But old tensions have also returned to HBCUs. At least two dozen campuses have received bomb threats this year. Federal legislation to boost funding for the country’s 102 HBCUs has stalled as many campuses continue to struggle with the legacy of generations of inequitable state support.

And not every school is feeling the hype — some small HBCUs have been fighting for years just to survive in a highly competitive market, contending with enrollment declines, aging infrastructure and budget woes.

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In search of refuge

Morgan State is a campus in transition. Steps away from buildings erected in the mid-20th century stands a glassy new student services building with an atrium and modern orange couches. Beyond that, a new residence hall is nearing completion.

In some ways, the recent growth at many HBCUs was expected. The schools remain a place for many students seeking refuge from the racism they experience in predominantly White spaces. Many, too, feel emboldened by it and are energized by movements like Black Lives Matter.

Christian Ato, an 18-year-old Morgan State freshman, on a recent overcast Monday declared he was on campus to “break generational curses.”

Jelani M. Favors, a history professor at North Carolina A&T who has written a book on the role of historically Black colleges in promoting leadership and activism, explained the draw for many students. “You’re going to be exposed to idealism that encourages you to think of yourself as a political and social change agent whose mission it is to go out there and to tackle our society’s ills and to make this a better place.”

Jayden Seay, 18, of Woodbridge, Va., never doubted he would go to an HBCU. The only question was which one. His mother went to Hampton University. He also thought about Howard and Morehouse College. In the end, Seay landed at his first choice: North Carolina A&T. He had been active in the NAACP in Northern Virginia and felt the lure of a university in Greensboro, N.C., whose students had played a vital, catalytic role in 1960s demonstrations against Jim Crow segregation.

“This was the place I needed to be,” Seay said one sunny afternoon this week on the patio of the student center. “Going to a school with such a rich history in the fight for civil rights.”

Kennedy Reid, 20, a junior from Greensboro who is majoring in economics, said enrolling in the hometown HBCU helped open the world for her. At her predominantly White high school, she said, she often felt viewed as “the token Black student.” That weighed on her, she said, sometimes undermining her self-confidence.

“It’s nice to be on a campus where I don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “I can just fully focus on myself and growing as Kennedy — and not Kennedy as a Black woman living in America.”

At Morgan State, a survey found 58 percent of its entering class said the No. 1 reason they applied was because they wanted to attend an HBCU. “I call it the Kamala Harris-George Floyd effect,” said Kara Turner, the school’s vice president for enrollment management and student success.

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“On the one hand, you have these very high-profile leaders like Kamala Harris, like Stacey Abrams, who are very proud HBCU graduates,” Turner added. “On the other hand, you have the Black Lives Matter movement. You have this concern about, well, just being Black can get you hurt, killed, et cetera. And so, students are looking for this safe space, this physically safe, but also emotionally, psychologically safe space.”

Now, HBCUs face a wave of menace that echoes violence and intimidation Black schools endured in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The FBI last week said as many as six people — all juveniles — are suspected in bomb threats targeting at least two dozen campuses since early January. The bureau is investigating the threats as hate crimes and has indicated that its probe is “of the highest priority.” Authorities have not found explosive devices at any campus.

Still, the threats are enough to leave a community anxious and traumatized, leaders said.

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“To claim to want to bomb HBCUs says very much, very strongly, ‘You’re not safe anywhere. We don’t want you to be able to learn anywhere,’ ” Anne McCall, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at Xavier University of Louisiana, said during a conversation between HBCU leaders hosted by the Southern Poverty Law Center this week.

Whether an actual bomb gets planted on campus, the threats send the message that Black progress is unacceptable, said Adrian Phillips Jr., 19, a sophomore at Morgan State.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, wait, we got to make sure we knock them back down a block,’ ” Phillips said.

North Carolina A&T, the nation’s largest historically Black university since 2014, received a bomb threat Tuesday, said Harold L. Martin Sr., chancellor of the university. Authorities concluded the threat, like the others, was not credible. Classes continued without interruption, and no buildings were evacuated.

“It hits home,” said CarmenMichelle Flowers, 21, a senior from Cincinnati majoring in biomedical engineering. “Why us? Why our schools? We’re just trying to get an education.”

For many who attend HBCUs, school is their refuge. Their classmates and professors are family.

‘An immense period of transformation’

On the national level, the chaos of the pandemic — with campuses nationwide forced to operate at least partially online to protect public health — contributed to enrollment plunges. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported in January that college and university enrollment had fallen by more than 5 percent since 2019.

But for many HBCUs, the picture was different.

Among 17 historically Black universities with at least 5,000 students in fall 2019, a Washington Post analysis of federal, state and institutional data found 10 reported preliminary head counts for fall 2021 that exceeded their pre-pandemic totals. Howard’s enrollment jumped 28 percent over two years, to 12,065. Morgan State’s count was up 9 percent, to 8,469, and North Carolina A&T’s was up 6 percent, to 13,322.

Morgan State President David Wilson credits the growth to a number of factors. The past 10 years have ushered in $800 million for capital improvements, and more additions are on the way. The university has refined its programs to stay competitive. Morgan State offers degrees in fields such as cloud computing that students cannot find elsewhere in Maryland, Wilson said.

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In addition to enrollment, retention and graduation rates have also increased. More than 70 percent of Morgan State students are returning to campus after their first year, federal data shows. When Wilson arrived in 2010, 29 percent of students were graduating within six years. Now, 44 percent do. Wilson has a goal of graduating 50 percent of students by 2025. The national graduation rate for Black students is just over 44 percent.

“Morgan is in an immense period of transformation,” Wilson said.

There were smaller enrollment jumps at Prairie View A&M (5 percent); Southern University and A&M College in Louisiana (4 percent); Albany State and Fayetteville State universities (3 percent each); Bowie State and Winston-Salem State universities (2 percent each); and Jackson State University (1 percent).

Not every school has grown. Some smaller HBCUs have struggled through years of enrollment declines, all while dealing with small endowments, crumbling infrastructure and other challenges.

Bennett College, a private women’s school near North Carolina A&T, nearly lost its accreditation in 2018 because of a lack of resources. Through a last-ditch fundraising campaign, the college secured more than $9.5 million to prove it had the means to survive. It is in the process of becoming fully accredited.

More than 600 students attended Bennett in fall 2014. Now enrollment hovers around 200, said Suzanne Elise Walsh, the college’s president since 2019.

Walsh said there are advantages to operating small, a notion she terms a “micro college.” Administrators say they are extra attentive to student needs. They noticed many were stopping or dropping out toward the middle of the traditional 16-week semester. So to reduce stress, they replaced the semester with three “mini-mesters” in which students take one or two classes instead of the usual five.

“What we’re starting to see is a real interest in what kind of innovation can come from smaller colleges,” Walsh said. “There is a recognition that small colleges have something to contribute when it comes to innovation.”

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In some places, philanthropy is helping. Until recently, big-dollar donations common at prestigious, predominantly White schools were rare for HBCUs. But philanthropist MacKenzie Scott gave more than a half-billion dollars to HBCUs in 2020, including $40 million to Morgan State and $45 million to North Carolina A&T. Scott is the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.

But leaders say they also need more public support, and some of the largest proposed federal investments in the sector remain in limbo.

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden pledged more than $70 billion to HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions in recognition of the work they do with limited resources, but Congress has scaled back the proposal. The president’s Build Back Better plan sought $3 billion for the schools to upgrade research infrastructure and $6 billion for those schools to improve academic support services and award need-based financial aid to students. Although the legislation cleared the House in November, it stalled in the Senate without the backing of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

Biden said at a news conference last month that the domestic spending package has a stronger chance of success if broken into smaller bills, but it is unclear which components will be prioritized.

Gridlock in Washington is also holding up another pot of funding for HBCUs. The Biden administration proposed an additional $600 million for minority-serving institutions, historically Black and tribal colleges, and community colleges in the 2022 federal budget. But that would require a longer-term spending deal. As of now, lawmakers are on track to maintain existing federal spending levels through March.

The White House said this week that it remains committed to supporting historically Black schools, and that the administration has delivered $5.8 billion to the institutions in pandemic relief.

But the glacial pace of federal funding has tempered the excitement HBCU advocates shared at the beginning of Biden’s tenure.

On the state level, the funding picture is mixed. For generations, many states shortchanged their public HBCUs, creating lasting disparities that led to lawsuits in Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina.

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Forbes magazine recently detailed a pattern of chronic underfunding for North Carolina A&T and other public HBCUs since the late 1980s, in comparison with the resources state governments provide predominantly White land-grant universities. North Carolina A&T, Forbes found, had a massive funding gap, relative to North Carolina State University.

Martin, the university’s chancellor, said he is pushing state officials and the business community for more resources, “unapologetically demanding the best for our university.” He said he wants North Carolina A&T to join the highest ranks of research universities in the country — a level known as R1.

Wilson has similar aspirations and suggested the state’s unequal support for its Black institutions has delayed the school’s ascension into the ranks of the country’s research powerhouses. None of the country’s HBCUs has attained R1 status.

Years of underfunding translate to real challenges. Financial need is high at HBCUs — where nearly 3 in 5 students are from low-income households — and endowments that could provide generous scholarships lag behind other colleges by at least 70 percent. The average public HBCU has a deferred maintenance backlog that exceeds $60 million, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office survey of 79 schools.

Last year, Maryland settled a long-running lawsuit over funding for Morgan State and three other public HBCUs for $577 million.

In light of recent construction at Morgan State, “the campus is expecting world-class facilities,” said Wilson, whose office is housed in a building constructed in the 1940s. Some buildings on the campus need to be gutted.

“I’m very optimistic that we will get there,” Wilson said. “It’s just that, you know, we have to have a little patience.”

Anderson reported from Greensboro, N.C.