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Historically Black Colleges Face Financial Challenges - 2004-02-21

Colleges in the United States set up more than a century ago to educate freed slaves are still struggling to pay their bills. And fundraising is only one of their problems. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is threatening to rescind the accreditation of many of these historically black colleges and universities. Some educators say a lack of funds is the problem, others say it's discrimination.

St. Augustine's College is a school of 1,500 students, set in the heart of the state capital, Raleigh. Founded in 1867 by the Episcopal Church, it's one of the nation's historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs. Junior Brent Thibeault says he's getting not just a good education here, but the support he needs to succeed. "This school has definitely given me a chance to excel and be motivated," he says. "Otherwise, I might not be in school. I'd probably be in a community college still".

This past December, St. Augustine's was put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting agency for 11 southern states.

Of the dozen schools sanctioned by the Association, five are HBCUs. Most of their problems are financial. Over the years, historically black colleges and universities have not received as much funding from public and private sources as traditionally white schools, and generally have smaller endowments.

"I would definitely say maybe that HBCUs face more challenges than non-minority institutions," says Jacqueline Pollard, who faces those challenges every day, as chief fundraiser for Bennett College, a historically black women's school in Greensboro that just got off probation itself. She says HBCUs are still playing catch-up: the alumni might not have deep pockets, the fundraising staff might lack training, and questions persist about why these historically black schools are still needed.

"Because they've been justifying their existence, they have not been able to pay the kind of attention, I guess I want to say, to fundraising. It's a vicious circle," explains Ms. Pollard.

And the circle is especially vicious because the 'bottom line' is a major factor the Association considers when it evaluates a school. Others are the credentials of the faculty and the condition of the campus facilities.

"And we want to make sure if we put our stamp on an institution, they are truly deserving of the public's resources in terms of financial aid, and the confidence the public would have in our accredited status," says James Rogers, the head of college accreditation at the Association.

When the Association sanctions a school, it's serious business. First comes a warning, then probation, and then possibly loss of accreditation, loss of state and federal financial aid and eventual closure. Mr. Rogers points out that the accreditation process is not to penalize a school, but to alert it to weaknesses that could affect its long-term stability.

"I mean, you can have a balanced budget. But if you have to borrow money to do that, or draw down your endowment to do that, or not invest at all in your library for 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 years," he says. "Now you can look and say they've got a balanced budget. But the question the commission has to ask is, as what cost?"

African American educators agree that times are tough for all private institutions. They also say that the Association's standards are fair, that financial accountability is necessary, and that there's no conspiracy going on against HBCUs in the accreditation process.

But St. Augustine's president, Dianne Suber, suggests that some evaluators don't appreciate the challenges of operating a historically black college.

"You bring in a committee of representatives from Duke, Wake Forest, Temple, the University of South Carolina, and have them assess my school. You're going to get a group of people looking at success from a very different vantage point, than when you bring in a committee of people who have an understanding of how you generate an excellent program on limited resources," she says.

St. Augustine's has run a surplus for the last two years. But it was put on probation partly because of questions about its long-term fiscal stability. What should really count, Ms. Suber says, is that her school is doing its job in the way it matters most: producing students who go on to successful careers or graduate studies. And, she says, it's not a giveaway. "I think there's some general feeling that our programs are not as competitive, not as rigorous, that our expectations and standards are not as high. It is a misperception, it certainly is not accurate," she says. "And there are literally thousands of examples that we can give to counter that, but again, we're always dealing with perceptions and stereotypes and that's part of it."

Concerns about the Association's assessment of HBCUs prompted a letter of complaint in 2001 from the United Negro College Fund to the U.S. Department of Education.

At the Association, James Rogers says charges of racism are unwarranted. He points out that 19 percent of his evaluators are African American, even though just 10 percent of its schools are.

"You know, we have gone out of our way to be fair and representative," he says. "And so I just think it terribly unfortunate that people feel that way, because it's certainly not the intent of the commission, to do anything but to apply the standards and apply them fairly and evenly across the board to all types of institutions regardless of character, nature, etc."

St. Augustine's must report back to the Association in September. But President Dianne Suber says the school's probationary status will make fundraising until then that much harder.