GREENSBORO — At North Carolina A&T State University, students hurry to and from class, iPod cords draped over their shoulders, past a small courtyard where a painful history is pockmarked in four brick slabs.
There, the university’s civil rights legacy is visible in bullet holes in the bricks, marking the place where the National Guard opened fire in 1969, killing a student. The old buildings at the Greensboro campus are gone, replaced by four modern residence halls named for the men who, as A&T students, went to a Woolworth lunch counter in 1960 and gave birth to the sit-in movement.
A&T, like the state’s four other taxpayer-supported historically black universities, celebrates its historic mission to educate a population that had no other opportunities in the segregated South. But the schools that are so defined by heritage are now searching for a formula to stay viable in a new era of scarce resources and unparalleled competition for students.
The squeeze became more acute this year. Enrollment declined at four of the five campuses, including a punishing 16 percent drop at Elizabeth City State University, the third slide there in three years. The northeastern North Carolina campus slashed jobs and academic programs to deal with a $5 million budget shortfall, and it expects more cuts next year. Enrollment fell 5 percent at Winston-Salem State University and nearly 6 percent at North Carolina Central University in Durham.
University leaders say the lower numbers aren’t entirely a surprise.
Tighter restrictions on some federal loans reduced access to financial aid. Higher minimum admissions standards for the UNC system were fully phased in last fall, shrinking the pool of prospective students at a time when the high school population had already stopped growing. In 2013, entering freshmen had to have at least a 2.5 high school grade point average and at least an 800 on the math and verbal portions of the SAT.
To capture the more qualified students, the historically black universities often go up against the larger, predominantly white campuses that have deeper scholarship pockets. They also vie with five private HBCUs in the state, as well as community colleges that offer students a two-year degree at affordable prices.
“The more you increase the admissions standard, the more we’re competing with other universities for the good students,” said ECSU’s interim Chancellor Charles Becton.
Complicating the landscape is a generational shift in attitudes.
Some students see the black college experience as less relevant today. Stephanie Paxton of Southfield, Mich., transferred to UNC-Greensboro from the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. She said she was unnerved that Fisk had been on probation with its accrediting body, and she wanted to meet classmates from broader backgrounds.
“I enjoyed my experience, but I know that the world is more diverse than just African-Americans,” said Paxton, 20, who is black. “I wanted to be ready for that world.”
Plenty of challenges
The challenges that face North Carolina’s schools are not unique among the nation’s 100-plus historically black universities. And they’re not unusual at a time of risk and rapid change in higher education.
Even the elite Howard University in Washington was in the national news in recent months after a decline in rankings, a downgraded credit rating, allegations of fiscal mismanagement and a dire warning from one trustee that the university wouldn’t last three years without drastic changes. The president resigned.
In 2012, in a Ford Foundation report called “Facing the Future,” author Phillip Clay laid out the challenges and opportunities for black colleges.
Two generations ago, three-quarters of black degree-earners attended HBCUs. Today, it’s one-sixth.
Clay, the former chancellor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT and a UNC-Chapel Hill trustee, writes that it’s now imperative for historically black schools to present a “fresh and compelling case” to college-bound young people. The schools still offer benefits that would not necessarily exist for minority students at other institutions.
Historically, HBCUs have been under-resourced, and they have always been in catch-up mode in terms of buildings, technology and faculty hiring. In this way, private black colleges are, by and large, in a more precarious position because they are driven by tuition dollars and serve a population that is disproportionately lower-income.
Former Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chancellor Phillip Clay said some of the problems of North Carolina’s public HBCUs stem from the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the UNC system designated them as fast-growth institutions to handle the burgeoning college-aged population.
The growth strategy was too rapid, Clay said, and students likely to fail, Clay said, were admitted in high numbers, resulting in graduation rates that were unacceptably low. “The state has to take some of the responsibility for the consequences of the ill-fated growth strategy,” Clay said in an email.
Fayetteville State University Chancellor James Anderson said he recognized the signs immediately when he arrived as leader six years ago.
“They were recruiting a lot of students who had no business being there,” he said.
Now, he said, the university is beginning to see the fruits of higher admissions standards, with better rates of student success. Retention rates of freshmen-to-sophomores from 2011 to 2012 climbed above 75 percent, higher than the rate of any year in records going back to 1996.
Finding new focus
The competitive landscape has led historically black campuses on a quest for new kinds of students. They have forged new relationships with community colleges to bolster the pipeline of transfer students; at the same time, hundreds of teenagers attend early college high schools on the campuses.
Some, such as Fayetteville State, are catering to veterans. Some are vowing to diversify with more Hispanic students and older students taking courses online. Last month, Elizabeth City State launched a short winter term offering online classes; it also wants to offer courses at the Coast Guard base 2 two miles from its campus.
While some HBCUs have dumped degree programs to cope with budget cuts, others have established market-driven majors. Fayetteville State created programs in intelligence studies and fire science management, while Winston-Salem State has added motorsports management.
Elizabeth City State, not far from where the Wright brothers first flew, has put emphasis on the state’s only aviation science program, which trains future pilots and air traffic controllers. On a recent afternoon in the air traffic control lab, two ECSU students guided planes on a radar simulator. Giant screens simulated the view from a control tower.
The program serves small numbers, but the university sees it as an important direction to take. It also plans to ramp up its emphasis on rural health. At the same time, the university dropped four degree programs and merged schools to save on administrative costs. A partnership with UNC-CH for a pharmacy doctorate satellite site has been suspended.
ECSU’s mission is under review by the UNC Board of Governors and is likely to narrow the focus of the campus. “All of this is designed to carve out a niche that makes us distinct,” Becton said.
Fayetteville State is planning a doctorate in entrepreneurship, which would be among a small number of such programs nationally. “You don’t sit and whine and say, ‘(UNC)-Greensboro and (UNC)-Charlotte are getting a lot of African-Americans,’ ” Anderson said. “What you do is say, ‘OK, they are, so let’s become more competitive. Let’s have offerings both online and face-to-face that attract these students.’ ”
N.C. A&T won approval from the UNC Board of Governors to raise its out-of-state freshman population to 25 percent, above the established 18 percent cap. The university has a strong demand from out-of-state students who, through alumni networks, seek out A&T’s engineering and business schools.
The university is putting more emphasis on study abroad programs and just signed a deal with a Chinese university to bring 20 Chinese students a year to study engineering at A&T.
The campus also aims to raise its non-minority population to 30 percent by 2020. That number is now below 10 percent.
“We have to change because the students are changing,” said A&T Provost Joe Whitehead. “It’s an evolutionary process we have to go through. We have to embrace the past and plan for the future. … We can’t just have the traditional HBCU experience of the past. (Students) have to be able to function in a global society.”
Beyond the program changes, campuses are much more calculating about how they recruit students.
ECSU has asked each alumni chapter to come up with 10 prospective students for the campus to consider. Gerald McCants, interim vice chancellor for student affairs, touts the slogan “Each one, reach one” to alumni and other university supporters.
That will be important, he said. The university used to accept more than 70 percent of prospective students. Now, because of the new standards, the acceptance rate is about 53 percent.
“If we don’t have students, we don’t have a budget,” he said. “If we don’t have a budget, we don’t have a school. It’s that simple.”
NCCU has been focused on “enrollment management,” which covers marketing, recruiting and admitting students. The new chancellor, Debra Saunders-White, said NCCU had upped its game in the way it markets to students, resulting in a record 10,000-plus applications by the end of December.
The campus now sends video messages to applicants and accepted students, and Saunders-White personally signs admission letters. She’s been known to tweet prospective students who mention NCCU on Twitter.
“We took our message directly to our students,” she said. “We took our brand to our students and we got aggressive. … We’ve been all over social media.”
The challenge now is to make sure they arrive at the Durham campus next fall, said Sharon Laisure, interim vice chancellor for enrollment management.
NCCU will hold receptions around the state for admitted students. It will also offer SAT “boot camps,” at which a retired professor will give students free sessions on how to boost their standardized test scores. That could change the game for students who have good grade point averages but have trouble with testing.
Respect for history
The experimentation comes at a time when all campuses have been under increased scrutiny for performance, efficiency and student success.
Six-year graduation rates hover between 31 and 43 percent at the historically black campuses, below the UNC system average of 60 percent. The rates could climb with the new admissions standards, but it would take years to see gains.
Last year, a few lawmakers floated the idea of closing or consolidating campuses in the UNC system. No particular schools were identified, but those losing enrollment could be most at risk if closures are ever pursued.
Last April, Gov. Pat McCrory met with leaders from 10 public and private HBCUs and asked them a pointed question: What is your collective vision? They responded with a letter to the governor and a promise: “We share your belief that the development of a focused strategic plan is critical,” wrote Anderson of Fayetteville State.
UNC system President Thomas Ross said he and the board want to differentiate the missions of the schools, with a focus on regional needs and market-oriented programs.
“We’re in a changing time in North Carolina and really in the country,” he said. “There’s a pretty dramatic demographic shift that’s taking place. I think the future of those institutions, actually, is pretty bright. I think they will change in their character.”
Such a change may be needed, but North Carolina’s proud public historically black universities will have a balancing act ahead: reinventing themselves while trying to hold onto what makes them special.
Chad Kelly, an A&T student from South Orange, N.J., came south to play soccer at North Carolina’s two-year Louisburg College.
When it was time to transfer, he wanted an experience he couldn’t have in New Jersey, so he chose A&T, where he has developed a respect for history.
Recently in his public relations class, the professor had students them write an obituary of one of A&T’s beloved figures: Franklin McCain, who died Jan. 9. McCain and his three friends were the ones who sat down at that lunch counter in Greensboro 54 years ago.
As Kelly waited for a ride after class, workers nearby fixed lamps in preparation for a memorial service for McCain. An Aggie-colored funeral wreath of blue and yellow flowers rested in front of the campus statue that honors the “Greensboro Four.”
“They tell you about the people who came before, and the way you live that tradition,” said Kelly, 26, who will graduate this spring. “It makes you work a little harder to succeed, to kind of embody what they worked for.”