Other students said they were going from faculty office to faculty office, pleading with professors to add them to class lists because they were unable to register online. “They need to fix this,” Nwaokoro said.
The school year got off to an especially hectic start this fall at Howard, the iconic historically black university whose students are staunchly loyal to the school even as they demand improvements.
They love the history, the legacy, the culture, the classes, the friendships they form. But they’re tired of persistent problems at a school with troubled finances.
The university’s credit rating has been downgraded three times in the past three years, and the D.C. school has gone through a couple of rounds of layoffs in recent years. The concerns have arisen as the 10,000-student school prepares for a grand celebration of its 150th anniversary in 2017.
Perhaps more frustrating to students were the problems they faced as this year’s fall semester began, largely because they impacted their daily lives on campus. It quickly hit a boiling point as they publicly expressed frustrations over housing, financial aid, registration and dismissive staff members.
After an online campaign went viral – the slogan #takebackHU was trending online nationally on Wednesday – university leaders were quick to respond. The president and others met with students, listened to their concerns, set up a temporary help center staffed with volunteers in a campus auditorium, and worked to expedite financial aid glitches.
Many of the issues weren’t new. Alumni were quick to add their voices to the mix, echoing the students’ affection for Howard at the same time that they said they, too, had had similar problems on the hilltop.
Andrew Clark, a 2013 graduate visiting campus, laughed and shook his head when asked about the protests; the issues were so familiar to him. He said he got a notice in the spring of his freshman year that his financial aid and scholarships had come up $2,000 short of the total amount due and that his account would be “purged” in two days if he didn’t pay.
Luckily for him, he said, his parents were able to send the money quickly. But he saw many others who had to leave Howard because of problems with financial aid, he said.
Such issues aren’t unique to Howard, said Jason Coupet, an assistant professor of public administration at North Carolina State University who studies efficiency at historically black universities. An organizational economist, he became interested in the topic because so many of his friends and family members told him stories about bureaucratic hassles and red tape at their colleges. They loved their schools, and they were going crazy trying to register for classes.
Coupet believes such schools play an important role, preparing black students to be scholars and leaders, and he wants to find ways that they can be more effective. One problem, he said, is that they tend to be top heavy, so leaders might not know what’s happening at ground level and might not be nimble enough to make changes quickly.
He thinks that most would benefit from giving more power to the heads of individual units — financial aid, and so forth — and building in a lot more accountability.
It’s easy to evaluate a financial aid office, he said: “How satisfied are students? How quickly are they getting their financial aid? It’s easily measurable. To have students complaining about this for as long as they have is problematic, for sure.”
This week, Wayne A. I. Frederick, Howard’s president, sent a letter to the campus community responding to concerns, acknowledging shortcomings in the delivery of financial aid, explaining some of the challenges the school faces, and promising specific remedies.
“With regard to financial aid and registration, the university is experiencing significant problems with the operation of its network,” he wrote. They are working with the company that manages that system, and the contractor that manages housing, to make improvements, he assured students.
One student said Friday that housing officials had been dismissive of her concerns about non-working appliances, mildew, broken blinds and closet shelving in her dorm. That was fairly typical of many complaints raised on social media and in a list of demands that students gave university leaders. They want working wifi, timely financial aid, smoother registration, and staff members who can help resolve problems.
In an e-mail to colleagues Friday morning that was obtained by The Washington Post, the school’s provost described the president and other leaders’ response to student complaints.
“Students voiced a number of concerns including improved customer service throughout campus and focused on advising, financial aid, Registrar, etc.; consistency in information that they receive from various offices; better communication overall; improved infrastructure in buildings, supplies and equipment in their academic programs, etc.
“… last year the University received @ $200 million in tuition payment, and provided over $100 million in scholarships and student aid. This is against the total budget of over $800 million.
“Several of our infrastructure problems will require longer term solutions, leveraging of our real estate assets, creative financing, etc.” The provost then described efforts to expedite financial aid and to improve customer service.
On Friday, students sat on the floor of the administration building in protest, and they protested in the auditorium where officials had ensured that volunteers would be available to help.
Some were encouraged by the administration response.
Nwaokoro, the nursing student, was hoping it would all get solved quickly: She’s counting on that financial aid. “I need the money by the end of the month or I can’t pay rent.”