Challenges of pandemic threaten historically black colleges and universities

(CNN) - Colleges and universities nationwide have had to close campuses and move classes online in response to the coronavirus crisis. But the pandemic’s impact on historically black schools in the U.S. could be even more harmful and long-lasting, putting their future at risk.

"What happened during this pandemic and the escalation, it really exposed inequities that have already and always been known," Alabama State University President Quinton T. Ross Jr. said.

For decades, historically black colleges and universities have been a beacon of opportunity for minorities.

“We have been a shelter, and are a shelter for many of, students who are first-generation students,” Ross said.

College presidents said COVID-19 has put the financial footing of HBCUs in jeopardy in ways unlike other schools in higher ed.

“We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,” Virginia State University President Makola M. Abdullah said.

“The situation is 10 times worse,” Howard University President Dr. Wayne Frederick said.

With classes moving online and schools issuing substantial refunds for room and board, HBCUs say they’ve had to adjust dramatically, and it hasn’t been cheap.

“Basically, when we had to rush to try to provide and undergird ourselves with technology. In the realm of technology, many of the infrastructures are not up to par,” Ross said.

But without deep endowments and large cash reserves, tuition fuels operations at HBCUs, and many of the lower income families they serve are now grappling with their own financial hardships in a down economy.

“We are largely dependent on the level of financial aid help that our students can get from their Pell grant, from the state and from philanthropy,” Abdullah said.

“We have $12 million of uncollected tuition,” Frederick said.

Last month, the Department of Education directed nearly $1.4 billion in additional funding to minority serving institutions - that on top of nearly a billion already earmarked under the CARES act - but some HBCUs have warned lawmakers the situation is “dire” and more is needed.

“We are very concerned that without the adequate federal and state support that many institutions that serve the underserved might not be around afterwards,” Abdullah said.

Presidents like Frederick at Howard University remain optimistic. He’s seen a notable uptick in enrollment numbers for the coming fall. Still, the big unknown is what happens if students can’t return to campus culture.

“One of the reasons you come to Howard is because 20% of what you’re going to get is an excellent education in the classroom. But 80% of the time you spend is going to be outside interacting with people, interacting with the culture, the experience. And so taking that away is problematic,” Frederick said.

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