Obama White House awards HBCUs, but how will the money be managed?

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The Department of Education recently announced it is providing $228 million in grants to 97 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in 19 states. The funds will be used for campus expansion, counseling programs, science equipment and faculty training.

“HBCUs have made enduring, even staggering contributions to American life despite the steep financial challenges many have faced,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “The grants will help these important institutions continue to provide their students with the quality education they need to compete in the global economy.”

The announcement is welcome news for financially challenged institutions who, like the black community as a whole, have been hurting during the U.S. economic downturn.  In addition, the grants will ease the concerns of critics who believe President Obama has not done enough to help the black community, his most ardent supporters.

Nevertheless, with the collapse of Morris Brown College— due to financial mismanagement, corruption, financial aid theft and foreclosure—and the overall precarious fiscal state of HBCUs, some are wondering if these schools can be trusted to properly manage their finances.

Among the historically black institutions facing economic woes are Bethune-Cookman University and Florida Memorial University. Money troubles have translated into accreditation issues and warnings for Fisk University, Tennessee State, Bennett College, Tugaloo College, Saint Paul’s College, Southern University, Virginia Union University, Grambling State University and others. Loss of accreditation affects a university’s reputation, fundraising and access to financial aid— which is crucial to the well-being of HBCUs.

In addition to Morris Brown, Alabama A&M University and Florida A&M have faced financial accountability problems, including financial aid theft.

Formed after the Civil War in order to provide the formerly enslaved with access to education, HBCUs serve an often marginalized, disadvantaged population.  Typically, they accomplish this with less funding than their resource-rich white counterparts, with whom they must compete for funding.

Although the 105 HBCUs account for 3 percent of all U.S. colleges, they enroll 12 percent of black college students, produce 23 percent of all black college graduates, 40 percent of the nation’s black science graduates, and 60 percent of blacks holding engineering degrees.  Further, these institutions are responsible for generating 50 percent of all African-American professionals and public school teachers, 75 percent of African-American Ph.Ds, 80 percent of black federal judges, and 85 percent of all African-American doctors.

Leadership in the HBCUs is at a crossroads, with vacancies for the position of president open at 16 colleges.  According to John S. Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the abnormally high vacancies are part of a problem that has been simmering for years, with an uphill battle in attracting quality leaders, but the immediate issue is the state of the economy.

“The reasons probably vary according to the institutional diversity in the HBCU sector, but it is not unreasonable to think that many of the vacancies are tied to the general stress of the economy and the constraints it places on people’s ability to both contribute to and pay for higher education. Simply put, a tighter economy intensifies the quest to remain competitive,” he said.