November 2, 2020
"I'm so used to seeing the campus full of people during the week and the weekend but now it's like a ghost town," Dayanna Fuller, a student at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore said.
It's a similar story on college campuses across the U.S., but for some historically Black colleges and universities in particular, the impact of coronavirus is hitting especially hard and compounding existing financial woes.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, a number of factors contributed to the financial jeopardy many of the smaller institutions found themselves in, but last year, President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan bill to restore permanent funding for HBCUs. Under the bill more than $250 million will continue to be allocated for minority-serving colleges annually.
Just months after he signed the bill, though, the world learned of COVID-19. With more than 214,000 reported cases at over 1,600 U.S. colleges, and counting, HBCUs, in particular, were presented with an unforeseeable hurdle to clear as Black Americans have been at a disproportionately higher risk of experiencing severe illness as a result of contracting the virus compared to white Americans.
For UMES, the onset of the pandemic meant a shift to virtual operations, but according to Lester Primus, the school's vice president of administration and finance, the true test was preparing for an uncertain fall semester.
"Enrollment revenues are now more difficult to estimate due to the health and economic uncertainty brought about by the current pandemic. Consequently, it is more challenging to develop expenditure plans," Primus told Cheddar as the school reopened in late summer.
On a larger scale, new student enrollment at historically Black institutions was already down 11 percent between 2010 and 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and as families nationwide face financial hardships there are concerns new student applications could continue to drop.
The nation's first historically black university, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, reportedly faced a deficit of $19 million just five years ago and the future of the institution had been unclear. The university has since made a significant financial turnaround, but has experienced some drop in enrollment from the spring 2020 semester to this fall as a result of the pandemic.
Still, in a statement to Cheddar, Cheyney University said, in part, "Even with current conditions resulting in some students to delay their enrollment plans due to the pandemic, Cheyney has realized a slight increase in its enrollment compared to the Fall 2019 semester and 33 percent above the total two years ago. Many students who previously enrolled have indicated their desire to come to Cheyney once the pandemic stabilizes."
UMES, meanwhile, is working to offset its financial losses with a revamped budgeting plan, Primus said.
"These strategies include application for and receipt of CARES Act funding during the pandemic, development of a budget contingency plan, deferment of facility renewal projects, reductions in part-time labor, increased scrutiny of filling vacant positions, and development of a temporary salary and wage reduction plan," he explained.
Under the CARES Act, the university received more than $3.5 million and of that, nearly $1.8 million was distributed directly to students who receive federal financial aid, are in good academic standing, and meet household income thresholds.
While some HBCUs continue to sift through plans to stay afloat financially, many students and families are also sorting through their own rough financial times. A survey by the United Negro College Fund found 54 percent of students in the organization's network of member schools face a monetary hardship due to COVID-19. More than half of those students are considering a transfer.
"Some students said that their family members were unemployed, they had to take on more work to help support their family. Some students said they didn't know where their next meal was coming from. Some students said they didn't know how they would be able to pay for school in the fall," said Brian Bridges, vice president of research and member engagement at the United Negro College Fund.
Some UMES students decided to stay enrolled this semester but opted to cut costs by avoiding campus life.
"I will say, a lot of students decided to do online classes until the spring semester as a precaution so they wouldn't get sick," Fuller said, observing that her classes on campus are emptier than they have been in the past.
UMES is offering a selection of online and hybrid classes as a course of action against the virus, but for institutions already struggling, a drop in revenue for other costs connected to attendance could gravely impact a school's economic standing.
In addition to health concerns, Bridges said students' financial statuses are leading them to opt for online classes, in order to save, by avoiding the need to shell out cash for boarding, dining, and casual spending.
"I think that the hybrid models are a little bit all over the place, but yes, I think that there is an opportunity there for some students to save money by going to school virtually, fully," he noted.
A third of the schools in the United Negro College Funds' network has opted to continue to the fall semester with solely virtual courses.
For UMES, the process of making accommodations for students' safe return to campus also came with an expensive price tag, according to Primus.
"These expenses include personal protective equipment, symptom checking software, COVID-19 test kits and the implementation of tests, enhanced cleaning supplies and equipment, additional technology and software for diverse instructional delivery and telework, and additional student housing so that students are socially distant in their living quarters," he said.
Future of HBCUs
While the Trump administration made permanent funding for HBCUs in his first term, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has also announced plans to support these institutions. As part of his platform, the former vice president says he will make tuition free at HBCUs, minority-serving institutions, and other public schools for students whose families earn less than $125,000 annually.
Of note, Biden selected Howard University graduate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate, making her the first HBCU graduate to be named a Democratic nominee for vice president. During her own presidential run, which ended late last year, Harris proposed a $60 billion plan for historically Black colleges that would allocate funds for scholarships, infrastructure, and teacher training programs.
In addition to the financial support that a Biden-Harris administration may add, the stature of HBCUs would also be elevated, said Bridges.
"Her nomination and subsequent election would mean everything for HBCUs," he said. "The demonstration of an HBCU graduate, who is a proud HBCU alum, who lifts up her Howard enrollment and attendance, and graduation on a regular basis, is another feather in the cap that affirms the vitality and necessity of HBCUs in the current educational landscape as we move forward."
Note: Reporter Lawrence Banton is a graduate of the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.