After being kicked out of a Howard University dorm, Angel C. Dye found herself sleeping on an air mattress in the kitchen of a friend’s apartment on North Capitol Street.
If things had gone her way, she would have been graduating this month, moving a step closer to a doctorate in English and one of her goals of opening an arts center for children.
In January, she was among the nearly 200 dorm residents purged from Howard because they owed the university money. Chips were installed in dorm-room locks to keep them out.
Dye — the only daughter of a single mother, with a father in prison since she was 5 — decided to go to classes anyway in hopes she’d get credit retroactively once her bill was cleared, maybe by fall.
She has struggled since freshman year to close the gap between her financial aid package and the costs of attending Howard, working part time, applying for scholarships, seeking help from alumni in her home state of Texas, even this winter starting a GoFundMe campaign. She cut costs, too, by doing things like dropping the school meal plan. Her balance has gone from $28,000 to $20,000, she says.
She loves Howard, the school that produced such giants as Thurgood Marshall and Toni Morrison, and legions of others who helped shape the 20th century. The onetime dean of its law school, Charles Hamilton Houston, was dubbed “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow” for the legal strategy to bring “separate but equal” to its knees.
Dye knew early that education was her ticket, and being accepted to Howard had sent her into the stratosphere. Her last grade-point average was 3.13, she says.
Her problem is complicated and simple: She just can’t afford to be there.
It has been an epic battle between this unyielding fact and her unyielding will to earn a degree, to make a place for herself in the world. In this she follows the narrative of generations of black Americans who have long seen education as a critical part of the freedom journey and who have had to fight for it every step of the way.
On the eve of its 150th year — 2017 is the sesquicentennial — Howard University is fighting, too. It is embattled financially, struggling to sustain a budget-draining hospital and a student population disproportionately in need (more than 60 percent qualify for federal Pell Grants).
The Great Recession hit black families especially hard, and to compound things, Congress’s mandated cuts under sequestration meant reductions in Howard’s federal appropriation. Policy shifts under the Obama administration also hurt a loan program meant to help parents pay for college. In 2008, Howard dispensed $42 million in need-based aid; last year, it was $110 million — half of its $221 million appropriation.
For generations, Howard has also grappled with a dual reality: a university known for its singular educational experience and a mind-boggling level of bureaucratic dysfunction. Now it is being hounded by a narrative from some who say they fear the Capstone, the Mecca, is losing ground, its legacy being chipped away bit by bit.
President Wayne A.I. Frederick and other university officials balk at such talk. They have a strategy they believe will close the financial gap that too many of its students are falling through. They say they are tackling the hospital problems, diversifying revenue sources, employing new approaches to address academic needs and seeking creative solutions to finance and protect the historic treasures on its campus.
“We have a historical footprint and a current one,” says Frederick, as he insists the university is holding firm on its commitment to excellence, noting current names from Howard’s ranks: Ta-Nehisi Coates, the prize-winning writer; Kamala Harris, the California attorney general running for U.S. Senate; and a host of entertainers.
President Obama will deliver the commencement speech May 7, when the university will award more than 1,300 bachelor’s degrees, 300 master’s and 100 doctorates; 400 will receive degrees in law, medicine, pharmacy and dentistry.
This is Howard in the crucible of the 21st century. It — as well as other historically black colleges — is working through challenges as higher education in general is transforming, with soaring student loan debt and the Web redefining the college experience. It seems Howard, born out of the “smoke and fire” of the Civil War, is racing toward a modern-day tipping point: Either it will forge boldly ahead or slip decidedly into a shadow of its great past.
In the churn of it all, what might it mean for students like Dye?
The layers of problems — some self-inflicted with leadership issues and financial turmoil — have been laid bare for a while. A trustee’s urgent letter about Howard’s crisis was leaked three years ago. The hospital’s chronic losses contributed to consecutive drops in the school’s credit rating, the most recent in June. And this fall students took to Twitter with a grievance campaign.
Using the hashtag #TakeBackHU, they complained about older dormitories being plagued by rodents and bugs, bad plumbing, and faulty air conditioning and heating. (Two new dorms opened in 2014.) Campus WiFi was spotty. And the financial aid office could be quicksand and chaos at once, where aid could be seriously delayed or riddled with errors. Another hashtag emerged, #SilentShowtime. Howard’s marching band refused to perform until members received their funding. (Eventually they did, with an apology.)
It’s a troubling picture for a place that is a leading producer of African Americans who earn doctorates. Its business and law schools are highly regarded. The U.S. Department of Education just recognized it as one of 13 private universities that excel at graduating federal Pell Grant recipients in six years.
Frederick points out that Howard had two Rhodes Scholar finalists last fall and a Marshall Scholarship winner. It also has a 2016 Truman Scholarship winner. As of March, Frederick said, applications were up, to 18,000 for fall 2016 from 13,000 in 2015. He added that the SAT average of this year’s incoming class was 1126.
The school is taking steps to put starch in its financial picture and its bureaucracy, officials say. One was the purge of “unregistered occupants.” In a “Letter from the President,” Frederick said the university was owed $22 million in uncollected tuition as of last spring. The school has started requiring students to have a zero balance to register or to pay one-third of their balance and be enrolled in a payment plan.
Education has to be paid for, students know, but some say it can feel like priorities are shifting, with focus less on them and more on business. “I think it’s really sad to see people with lots of potential not being able to get the proper education because of money,” sophomore Cydney Anderson said in an interview for @focusonhu on Instagram.
On March 2, 1867, President Andrew Johnson signed papers officially establishing Howard. The annual Charter Day celebration includes a convocation, followed the next evening by a black-tie awards dinner, the premier fundraiser. Together they create a palpable moment when it’s almost possible to visualize history, to watch the long walk from then to now.
Education for African Americans has always been a battlefield, from the days of slavery when it was denied outright, to Reconstruction, when black colleges faced violent attacks, to Jim Crow, to the present, when too many black and brown children are warehoused in subpar and defacto segregated elementary and high schools.
This year’s convocation came on an overcast March 4. In the Cramton Auditorium audience sat the president of Trinidad and Tobago, Frederick’s birthplace. There was also national security adviser Susan Rice; Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), an alumnus; Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights legend; and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Frederick — who arrived on campus at 16, earned his bachelor’s and medical degrees (he is a surgeon) and an MBA — spoke of responsibility to the “most noble and majestic of all institutions of higher learning.” He also spoke of the university’s first black president, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, a Tennessee preacher and son of former slaves who presided from 1926 to 1960. The school began, Johnson liked to say, in “a little frame building with four students, one teacher and no money.”
“Sounds familiar,” Frederick joked dryly. “I think I can give that speech.”
Johnson arrived at Howard a year after the university’s Alain Locke published his groundbreaking “The New Negro,” the famous anthology heralding the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson grew the faculty, expanded departments and shaped the school for the 20th century: a private, prestigious research-based powerhouse of intellectual muscle and social progress. It was destined to be the mecca of black intelligentsia, Howard professor Kelly Miller asserted in his essay for “The New Negro.”
In 1928, Congress, in an effort driven by Michigan Rep. Louis C. Cramton, voted to authorize an annual appropriation for Howard. The school’s future, the Republican declared, “as the great colored educational center for America is therefore now well assured.” It is the only HBCU out of 100 to receive such an appropriation.
Now here was Frederick, 44, in a dramatically different time.
No doubt on that stage were those who loved the university deeply but who were as fearful of losing a legacy as much as others were anticipating what may come.
The “doctor president,” as someone yelled from the audience, is a man awash in Howard’s tradition but working to retool an institution, and moving fast. And not without controversy.
Frederick’s office is on the fourth floor of the Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Administration Building, or the A Building. Named president in July 2014 after serving as interim president and provost, Frederick presides over 13 schools and colleges, Howard University Hospital and the nation’s only black-owned public television station. The system has a $613 million endowment and an $822 million operating budget for fiscal year 2016.
Frederick, with a new cabinet, has tried to respond to students’ calls for greater transparency and accountability. Last fall he appointed a student ombudsman and is bolstering the adviser process, including revamping the way graduation requirements are tracked. He set up a program that partially reimburses students for part of their senior year if they finish in four years. In 2015, when some seniors risked not graduating because they owed money, he launched an 11th-hour campaign to raise the funds.
Other decisions, not necessarily the Frederick administration’s, have generated student complaints. A policy that allowed students to participate in graduation even if they had six credits to finish was ended. And the stricter tuition payment policy — meant to help the university collect revenue while helping students deal with costs — offers little wiggle room for some struggling to stitch together resources.
Frederick has said he wants to end the university’s dependence on tuition and guarantee an education regardless of a student’s income. In his plan, that means diversifying revenue streams by monetizing some of the school’s real estate, finding entrepreneurial opportunities and increasing philanthropy income, including from alumni.
In January, the university announced it would join a Federal Communications Commission auction to potentially sell the rights to the spectrum on which Howard’s station, WHUT-TV, is broadcast. While some hope the sale would reap as much as $460 million, the final figure is expected to be less. The university can withdraw from the process, and objections to a possible sale have been widespread.
“It is our position and concern that African Americans and other diverse populations that are able to be seen and heard through the station’s programming would lose substantially if WHUT were to cease to exist,” the Howard Media Group at the School of Communications wrote Frederick early on.
The university says it can’t comment under FCC rules. An agency spokesman says auction updates shouldn’t be expected before June.
In February, Howard announced it was leasing to a developer the land under Meridian Hill Residence Hall, off-campus student housing on 16th Street NW. Again came cries that Howard was being sold off. But school officials are quick to correct those who describe the 99-year, $22 million deal as a sale. The developer plans high-end apartments, and the school would get a share of the profits.
“We are going to stay in ownership of the ground,” Frederick says.
Where no one disagrees is on the issue of alumni giving, and university officials say they are planning a major campaign for the 150th anniversary.
“We have to go out and convince corporations and foundations why investing in Howard University is going to make America and the wide African diaspora stronger,” Frederick says.
He is traveling the country to let alumni know how much the university needs their support. “We’ve already started to turn it around,” he says. “When I took over we were at 6.4 percent alumni giving. We’re up to 9 percent.”
Some of the fundraising difficulty is due to the limits of black wealth. As of 2013, 42 percent of African Americans ages 25 to 55 carried student loan debt, compared with 28 percent of whites, according to the Urban Institute.
But some alumni have said they want greater assurance about how their money would be used.
Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, the former trustee whose letter was leaked three years ago, is more optimistic now. She was an early supporter of Frederick’s. “Things are going much better,” she says, though she’s under no illusion that the road to recovery is short.
She rejects the notion that the school is being sold off.
“Just because you take something away doesn’t mean you aren’t going to be able to add something that will improve the education,” she says. “Give him a minute. And instead of complaining, give financially to the university.”
Howard’s family is real — in all its glory and frustrations. Students learn early to travel wearing Howard gear. The alumni network is global, and a cap or sweatshirt can open a door, make a connection. Its students are dynamic and ambitious, and many take the Howard motto of truth and service seriously.
They’re told, too, by their alumni parents and others that navigating the bureaucracy is part of the education. “If you make it out of Howard, then you can make it anywhere,” the saying goes.
Yet there’s a protectiveness: In family, you can criticize, but that doesn’t mean others can.
When Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the Charter Day Convocation audience that “it’s always spring when I think of Howard,” the audience embraces the poetry of that moment. When he talks about the beauty and the humanity and the dignity that he discovered on campus — a haven from the perils of overt and covert racism — he is profoundly understood.
But there is no contradiction a few nights earlier when, asked whether the issues that appeared with the Twitter campaign sounded familiar, he laughed. “Hell yeah, it sounds familiar,” he said. “Everyone has had experiences with long lines, someone losing your housing assignment.”
Students have a right to speak out, he says. “Those students don’t want Howard to go away. They want Howard to do better.”
Taylor Tiamoyo Harris knew about Howard long before she arrived on campus. Her father attended an HBCU, and his dad recently retired from teaching history at the University of Central Arkansas. She’s excited about graduating May 7 from the School of Communications.
“HBCUs do teach you confidence,” Harris says. Academics, “Greek life, everything is competitive here. I think it’s getting us ready to graduate.”
This year, she was editor of the Hilltop, the student newspaper. One day in March, Harris was sitting in the Hilltop’s business office in the West Towers dormitory. The newsroom, a few doors away, was empty. There’s no WiFi there, nor does it have the software the paper needs, she explains, which means the staff must scatter to find other places to work.
“It’s hard to function when you don’t have the basic necessities,” she says, noting that budget cuts left her with about nine staff members when in previous years there was double that. The print publication was reduced from Mondays and Fridays to just Mondays.
On this particular Monday, however, there was no print edition. The printer had called on Friday and explained that the school hadn’t paid the company, Harris says.
Last fall she had emailed Frederick late one evening about Hilltop issues. “He responded within 30 minutes,” she says.
“We know that things can get resolved,” Harris says, but there’s “not exactly a road map to show how to get there.”
Howard has many first-generation college students and generations of legacy Bison whose families can help pay for their educations. On both sides of that economic fence are young strivers with compelling stories and dreams.
But those dreams are precarious for the economically vulnerable. One false move — their own or someone else’s — could turn their lives.
As a junior, economics major Khalil Saadiq lost a scholarship when his GPA dropped one-tenth of a point, from the required 3.3 to 3.2. The student leader, who’d organized a viral picture of students with their hands up after the Ferguson, Mo., shooting, left amid the dorm cuts this winter and went home to Birmingham, Ala., with plans to join the military.
Senior Victor Foreman, a computer science major, won’t graduate this month, he says, because a financial aid mix-up kept him from registering. The classes he needs won’t be available until spring 2017, he says, and now he’s deciding whether to even bother.
The university said it is prohibited by law from discussing matters regarding students.
Allyson Carpenter, a junior political science and government major and the newly elected student association president, is passionate about Howard, but is — to put it politely — frustrated by the way HBCUs are funded and judged.
She came to Howard from Cleveland at 17, became a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner at 18 and just won a Truman Scholarship. First lady Michelle Obama recognized her work during a White House event, and Carpenter has spent this school year studying at Oxford.
She grew up with a sister and a single mother. Her father, once a successful preacher, struggled with drug addiction, which devastated the family and their income.
Carpenter has her prescription for Howard: “Transparency, financial aid expansion and academic renewal,” meaning it should consider creative ways of teaching beyond lectures.
Discussing Howard, or any HBCU, out of context is reckless, she says.
“We can’t talk about Howard doesn’t have this, Howard doesn’t have that, its graduation rate is 43 percent,” she says (referring to its four-year graduation rate; 60 percent graduate within six years). “Well, if I went to Harvard and my tuition was guaranteed because I make a certain amount of money and I had a guarantee that I was going to get a full scholarship, then I should graduate ... then you have no excuse to not graduate.
“I also think that HBCUs are only a microcosm, only one example of the way the federal government is treating black education in general. They are failing us in public schools with the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Michael J. Masch is Howard’s new chief financial officer. He is a Philadelphia native with experience in both higher education and government. On the day we met he was on the first floor of the A Building with William Whitman Jr., vice president of communications.
Here’s the main point Masch wants to make: “Howard University is in the first stage of a significant turnaround.”
Operating revenue after expenses was $95 million in 2013; by 2015 it was down to a little more than $30 million. For 2016, the university projects it to be up to $77 million.
This, he says, is based on the efforts to diversify revenue and to tackle the hospital’s financial problems, for which the school has hired an outside consultant.
Freedmen’s Hospital was founded in 1862, five years before the university, to care for former slaves. Ultimately, it became a teaching hospital, committed to serving the District’s black population. Today that population is declining, and with it, hospital revenue.
“There’s a larger wave that Howard’s caught up in,” Masch says. “One is changing demographics: younger population. ... They’re not going to the ER; they’re going to SoulCycle or CrossFit.”
Moody’s Investors Service’s 2015 downgrade said addressing the hospital operation would be key to improving Howard’s credit rating. “The FY 2016 budget also anticipates new income from the monetization of real estate,” the report said, but it expected the school to be wrestling with its problems for a while.
Howard’s federal appropriation also dropped, from $234 million in 2012 to $221 million in 2013, but has held steady since.
Eligibility requirements for the Parent PLUS loan program got tougher in 2011, which caused a crisis at HBCUs as more families couldn’t qualify. The Obama administration readjusted its policy after an outcry, but by then schools, including Howard, had been hit with unexpected enrollment declines.
“In general the average household income of a family that’s sending their son or daughter to Howard is $60,000 a year,” Masch said. “These are not deep-pocketed families, and that’s one of the reasons why we provide as much financial aid as we do, because that’s how we bridge the gap, and that’s why tuition increases have been moderate here.”
Annual undergraduate tuition has been frozen at $22,737 for two years but is expected to rise “a little bit,” Masch said. (To compare, tuition at American University for 2015-2016 was $42,556.)
While the goal is to end the school’s dependence on tuition and continue to find ways to help students pay no matter their income, the university wants families to come up with four-year financial plans.
“The luxury of being able to get into Howard and not have that financial plan in place will not serve students well or their families well,” Whitman says.
Adds Masch: “Our direction in terms of our enrollment and financial aid strategy is not to spread aid so thinly that we have a lot of students who are getting some help from us but not enough to stay here.”
Those unregistered dorm residents who had to leave had been repeatedly invited to work out payment plans, Masch says.
For some, however, payment plans weren’t workable.
At times, Angel Dye has wondered if community college would have been a better route, but “I was getting all this praise and support for getting into Howard.” In the end, she says, nothing replaces the educational experience she’s having, even with its major hurdles.
She went home after her first Howard semester with a 3.5 GPA, 16 credits and an unpayable bill of $10,000.
Her mother feared it was going to be hard. “I am a single parent and never made that much,” says Sharon Cobb, who was unemployed when she and Dye took three buses for nearly 24 hours to get to Washington. “The recession really hurt us. I lost three jobs during that time. We ended up being evicted from a couple of apartments.”
This March, Cobb had been working about four months as a medical scheduler, making about $30,000 annually, she says. She sends Dye money when she can, and Dye has received some support from her church. Cobb’s poor credit disqualified her for a Parent PLUS loan.
Cobb said she kept her daughter involved in arts activities while growing up and always stressed education. It paid off. Dye has helped finance school by winning writing contests, $100 there, $500 here. She has also self-published a few books, including an anthology of black women’s writings.
That second semester of freshman year, Dye returned to school in hopes of finding a way to register. She was at Obama’s second inauguration when an administrator called and told her they’d found a $7,500 loan that would help her onto a payment plan.
And that’s how it’s been: a patchwork of grit, hope, lucky breaks and bureaucratic shifts.
She registered one fall by getting her debt below $10,000 — by a cent.
“That year the administration was allowing people to still register for classes if they had a balance of $10,000 or less,” Dye recalls.
Her mother gave her $200, and that brought her bill to $9,999.99. “The guy looked at the computer and looked at me,” incredulous. But she registered.
She got a job working 30 hours a week. By this time, Dye says, her department knew the challenges and began passing on scholarship information, and one semester hired her for a work-study position. Payment went directly to the university for her tuition.
Once she registered when there was no hold on her account, though she had a balance.
“I was saying this is a miracle, but I’m sure it was a mistake.”
But the bill always comes due.
In January 2015 she got a knock on her dorm-room door at 7 a.m. It was her dorm director explaining that she had a balance and had to pay or leave. A friend crowdsourced the $1,300 she needed, but not before her dorm room was locked.
“I was ready to go home,” she says. “Maybe,” she thought, “I’m fighting for something that just wasn’t supposed to happen.”
But a mentor encouraged her to keep fighting. In August, she wrote an open letter to Frederick:
“I only am one of 10,000 Bison, and my story is complicated but probably not incredibly unique. I believe that I am receiving a world-class education at Howard University. My professors, advisors, mentors, and friends have made these last three years some of the best I have ever known, and I do not want that to be forfeited because of money. In the same regard I do not want another student to have to pen a letter like this one.”
She emailed it on Aug. 26, just after midnight. On Aug. 27, she got a response from financial aid official Derek Kindle noting that at one point the school and her mother had worked out a payment plan, but that the payments stopped the next month. He invited her to look at another extended plan and wished her well.
And that’s how she ended up one of those people unregistered in the dorm, trying to find a way to close the gap.
Dye got news during spring break. She received a summer fellowship at the University of Texas at San Antonio to work at its African American Literatures and Cultures Institute.
She also learned that she’d won a scholarship from the Extraordinary Institute, a D.C. organization committed to helping students finish school.
It is a $5,000 award.
Marcia Davis is a Post Magazine editor and writer. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.