[Episcopal News Service] For more than a century, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) affiliated with the Episcopal Church have worked to provide high-quality education to students who often faced limited academic opportunities. Formed to educate African-Americans when schools were segregated, they continue to fill an important academic role and serve their host communities as well, say school and church leaders.
But economic challenges, including the tightening of federal loan standards that has reduced enrollments and thus cut revenues, are stressing such institutions nationwide. Of the three affiliated with the Episcopal Church, St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, closed in June, and St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina, recently furloughed employees as part of an effort to combat financial troubles. Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, has seen enrollment drop and is planning a capital campaign to improve its financial situation, its president said.
“They’re all struggling financially, even state institutions,” said Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which provides school accreditations in the region. “[Of] the small, private institutions, of which most of the HBCUs are, a lot of the faith-based ones are struggling financially and trying to keep tuitions low.”
Seventy-five historically black colleges and universities are accredited by the association, which Wheelan said accounted for about three-quarters of such institutions nationwide.
“Devastating to just about all of the HBCUs this past year were the changes in the Parent PLUS Loan [program],” she said. The federal Department of Education tightened loan requirements, so many parents who had received approval for educational loans one semester then lost approval the next, and their children couldn’t afford to return to school, she explained.
Voorhees’ enrollment is some 550 students, down about 100 since last year, said Cleveland Sellers Jr., college president. The economic downturn and unemployment hit the college’s families hard, and interest on college loans rose last year, he said. Sequestration cuts also hurt. “The message is that college is not affordable, especially to lower-income families. That’s wrong. That’s just a sin. It’s the most important investment you can make.”
In the fall of 2013, the nation’s 100-plus HBCUs lost 17,000 students, cutting revenue by $150 million, he said. “We can’t stand any reduction in revenue. We’re already on the margin in many instances.”
Most of the schools have minimal endowments, he said. “We don’t have any kind of way to make up for our students who are not here.”
St. Paul’s announced in a June 4 press release that it was closing “temporarily to pursue other opportunities consistent with its purpose and mission” after the “unexpected termination of a proposed merger with another HBCU.”
Before the 125-year-old school ceased operations June 30, its enrollment had slipped below 100 students, according to a Diverse: Issues in Higher Education article. St. Augustine’s decided in May to nix a proposed merger, which would have meant the assumption of $4 million to $5 million in St. Paul’s debts by the North Carolina college, Diverse reported.
“St. Paul’s worked with surrounding schools to get their students transferred,” Wheelan said.
“The Episcopal Church was very much involved in the conversation with St. Paul’s and making every effort possible to avoid the closing of St. Paul’s College,” said the Rev. Canon Angela Ifill, missioner for black ministries and liaison to the three church-affiliated HBCUs. “It is very, very sad for us.”
Now, St. Augustine’s also is struggling financially, Wheelan said.
The Raleigh News and Observer reported Feb. 20 that declining enrollment in 2013 caused a $3 million drop in net tuition revenue; a contractor of the school’s football stadium sued for breach of contract, alleging the university owed it almost $675,000; and the university had eliminated 15 jobs, mostly through attrition and retirements.
Five days later, a university press release announced staff furloughs for March 9-16 as “part of a strategic plan to help the university maintain a strong financial footing.”
“Although not a complete solution, the institution is doing what is necessary to combat the impact of federal and state cuts, which has had a direct impact on our enrollment,” the release said.
“Although our situation is not unique, we are regretful that we have had to take this type of action,” President Dianne Boardley Suber said in the release. “We recognize the impact that this furlough will have on families, and we don’t take this decision lightly. As an institution, we are focused on moving forward and are confident that the tough decisions we are making now will be of great benefit to the institution in the long run.”
The four-year liberal arts institution, which achieved university status in 2012, was established in 1867. It enrolled 1,299 students in the fall 2013 semester, said Communications Director Pamela Tolson.
Suber was traveling and unavailable for an interview.
A powerful influence
“One of the things you have to know about HBCUs, we have been underfunded since our inception,” Sellers said. “We’ve always had to do more with less.”
The schools began soon after Reconstruction to educate newly freed slaves, he said. “They started out pretty much as secondary schools, high schools … and then they transformed themselves. One of the architects of the curriculum in those institutions was Booker T. Washington, who talked about industrial education. He thought that African-Americans needed to be able to develop industrial skills, entrepreneurial skills, and then they could be more productive in the economic arena and through that process work their way into a pluralistic society.”
Voorhees was launched in 1897 by Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, a protégé of Washington and a graduate of his Tuskeegee Institute. A New Jersey philanthropist, Ralph Voorhees, and his wife gave her the funds to buy the 450 acres where the school was built.
Sellers grew up in Denmark and attended elementary school through high school at the Voorhees School and Junior College. Voorhees became a four-year college in 1962.
Voorhees was the first HBCU accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and never has lost accreditation, said Lugenia Rochelle, chair of the division of general studies and interim executive vice president for academic affairs. The college also has special accreditations for its business and child-development and elementary-education programs, and it boasts a strong biology program, she said. “Many of our students go on to graduate school to pursue careers as doctors.”
While HBCUs constitute 3 percent of America’s colleges and universities, they award 20 percent of the baccalaureates earned by African-Americans, Sellers said. Sixty percent of African-American lawyers and half of African-American school teachers receive degrees from HBCUs, he said.
Located in a poor, rural area, Voorhees serves students who mostly are economically disadvantaged and often come from single-parent households and failing schools, Sellers said. Most students come from South Carolina, with 96 percent receiving financial aid and 42 percent representing the first generation in their family to attend college.
HBCUs like Voorhees are needed to continue to serve these populations of students, who “can make good citizens and can do things that transform our economy and this world,” Sellers said. “But somebody has to invest in them.”
The Episcopal Church has played a significant role at Voorhees. The school has received support from both South Carolina dioceses and had buildings constructed with funds from churches and dioceses as far away as the Diocese of Massachusetts.
Starting in the 1960s, the Episcopal Church began providing an allocation for the three schools – initially about $1 million per year – but more recently switched to awarding block grants, Sellers said. The current triennial budget awarded $2,025,000 for the schools.
(A fourth Episcopal-affiliated institution, Okolona College, was founded in Mississippi as Okolona Industrial School in 1902 “to provide normal and industrial education for African-American young people,” according to the College History Garden blog. It became a college in 1932. “In 1965, the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi decided to withdraw support and the institution soon closed.”)
Voorhees has used its block grant funds for activities related to historic St. Phillip’s Chapel on campus, which operates as an independent Episcopal Church, said Sellers, himself an Episcopalian. Rochelle, who became an Episcopalian after attending St. Augustine’s, serves on the vestry and as a lay minister.
“The Episcopal tradition is well-kept here,” said the church’s vicar and campus chaplain, the Rev. James Yarsiah. On Feb. 11, the chapel hosted an Absalom Jones service, with bishops and other clergy and laity from the dioceses of South Carolina and Upper South Carolina participating.
Besides regular Sunday worship for the congregation, St. Phillip’s offers Tuesday chapel services for the school community. “That is part of our tradition,” Yarsiah said.
Tuesday services are “not strictly Episcopalian,” he said. “I do invite other pastors and ministers in the community to come and share.”
Perhaps 5 to 6 percent of Voorhees students are Episcopalians; about 85 percent are Baptists, he said. “This is the Baptist corridor. … We accept all faiths, all traditions.”
Because the school receives federal funds, it cannot require students to attend chapel, Rochelle said. But it does encourage participation, counting chapel attendance toward a required 72 hours of cultural enrichment, she said. “We do try to impress on them the importance and value of having an abiding faith in God, and we do require all of our students to take a course called Religion and Philosophy.”
The Episcopal Church supports the schools in multiple ways.
It provides the financial support approved by General Convention, “but it goes beyond the financials,” Ifill said. For example, she holds campus symposiums, taking clergy and laity to spend two-and-a-half days on campus interacting with students in classrooms and in one-on-one meetings. Every two years, the church invites the institutions’ students, presidents, faculty and staff to attend a recognition day. The most recent was held in Atlanta in 2013.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori “was present for the entire event, and that says a great deal about the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the colleges,” Ifill said. “Bishop Katharine’s attendance at the event gave the students a sense of how much they are valued, and the work of the colleges, which could be called a ministry because of their involvement beyond the college campus and into their local communities.”
“The students were just blown away by the fact that the leader of the Episcopal Church saw them as important enough to be there, talking heart to heart with them,” she said. “That’s what our students need. They need positive role models in their lives at every turn whose presence and interaction say to them: We care about you. We do care about what happens to you.”
One of the attractions of these schools for students, she noted, is that “the classes are smaller.
“There is an intimacy in the sense that the president of the college, faculty and staff know the students by name. And if a student does not show up to class, they might just find one of them at their dormitory door.”
In some cases, these schools also provide “an education for young people who otherwise could not get an education,” she said.
But the HBCUs provide more than an education for their students.
“The colleges function today in a much broader sense in that they have become pivotal in the communities in which they are located,” Ifill said. “Very much like some congregations, they’re the center of a community and what happens in that community.”
Voorhees, for example, is the largest employer in its community, she said. “Voorhees is instrumental in providing a health-care center. … Also, St. Augustine’s is very much plugged into the community.”
Located in a rural part of a state with high poverty levels, Voorhees is in a county that just lost a hospital. There is a high infant mortality rate but not one OB/GYN in a three-county area, Sellers said. “We have a lot of other issues that we have to address. So we do a lot of community-service work.”
A valued education
Those sort of values factored into Rochelle’s decision to attend St. Augustine’s for her college education. She chose the school because of its proximity to her home, about an hour and 45 minutes’ drive away; an offered scholarship; and its church affiliation, although she wasn’t then an Episcopalian.
“I thought I could get additional nurturing that I would need to mature into the kind of person that I wanted to be,” she said. She liked “the idea of being able to combine spiritual and religious values with educational or academic values.”
“Of course, then the rules were strict, but I was brought up in a very disciplined environment,” she said. “I think that that experience at St. Augustine’s College really did help me to become who I am today. The academic experience was great.”
Rochelle joined the drama club and helped serve as hostess at social functions for faculty at the college president’s house. “I learned a lot about the social graces,” she said. “I think St. Augustine’s expanded my mind … to become more of an inquiring person.”
That inquisitiveness also led her into the Episcopal Church. She grew up worshiping in Baptist, Pentecostal and Methodist churches, “but I found I was looking for something else, and I wasn’t sure what it was before I graduated from high school. But when I went to St. Augustine’s, it was then that I determined what it was I was looking for. I decided as a freshman that I would be a free-thinking Christian.”
She formally joined the Episcopal Church after graduating and moving to Greensboro.
Looking back, she said, “I can’t tell you that I was a top student. But I was a good student, and I think I learned well, and it prepared me to go on to other levels of education, and that’s something that I’m trying to pass on to my students.”
– Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.