Small- and middle-sized independent colleges have fared the economic recession well during the past six months, but historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in that category face special problems, according to Dr. Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges.
“When the crisis hit last fall, many of our members focused on students coming back in January and helped with financial aid. As a result many did,” Ekman told Diverse in an interview.
Also helping were the facts that the council’s 587 members are not big public colleges affected by state budget cuts or private schools with large endowments that have taken huge hits in the past year because of stock market drops, he said.
The private HBCUs that are members of Ekman’s group confront special issues. “They have tighter operating budgets so the margin for error is tight,” he says. Nor do many HBCUs have big endowments to fall back on, with the exception of Spelman College in Atlanta.
Even so, some HBCUs and schools with large Latino populations have done remarkable jobs in tough times, especially in the area of retention.
“Xavier in New Orleans has had record enrollments,” he said.
But many others are simply “holding their own,” during these tough times and find it hard to retain students. “It is harder to retain a student from sophomore to junior year than it is recruiting a new one,” Ekman notes.
One HBCU with a strong performance, Ekman says, is Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C.
“They have done a good job with retention,” he says. The school with 1,807 students has a 74 percent retention rate and has won accolades for being named the No. 1 HBCU in the country by Forbes.com and was selected for first place in the country in commitment to teaching by a U.S. News & World Report Survey.
Among reasons why Claflin does well, says Vivian Glover, assistant vice president for communications and marketing at Claflin, is that the school identifies students’ financial needs “early and we do a very thorough job,” she says.
Later, if students are having money problems, “We have an emergency financial aid fund that they can use,” she says. The school serves many low-income students, 96 percent of which are on some form of financial aid.
Among small and medium-sized schools with large Latino student bodies, St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas with a student body of 4,900 likewise has an admirable retention rate, Ekman says.
The retention rate of 84.5 percent can be attributed to “starting at the beginning of the student’s experience with us and providing a sense of place,” St. Edwards communications director Michelle Diaz says. “It’s not something you work on down the road.”
Ekman says while his group’s members beat back the early part of the recession by focusing immediately on students’ financial aid, it is not something they can do all the time. “Colleges helped a lot by sweetening the pot, but they can’t dodge the bullet every year,” he said.
While President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan has increased funding for Pell Grants, there’s a limit to what colleges can do semester after semester, he says. One bright sign is that the nation’s economy appears to be on the mend, “but I sure can’t make any predictions,” Ekman said.
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