Pandemic hits already financially strapped HBCUs especially hard

WASHINGTON — Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the country are preparing to reopen for the upcoming semester while facing financial challenges amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The schools serve communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, both through infection rates and financial hardship.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Black Americans have an increased risk of infection from COVID-19 and are more likely to die from the virus.

“We already serve a population that is greatly in need,” said. Dr. Anthony Wutoh, Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Howard University. “The pandemic has just intensified that need.”

Howard University in Washington D.C., like many schools, has a hybrid plan for the upcoming semester, offering both virtual and in-person classes.

For many HBCU students though, virtual learning can be a challenge.


"Really because of the unique circumstances of our students, many of whom come from very low-income families, and have challenges in terms of being able to study and find adequate preparations based at home," Wutoh said.

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee is also working to balance the health and financial needs of its students.

“We will be doing our best to ensure that we can preserve the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff,” said Larry Robinson, President of FAMU. “We have to invest in funds to support students’ needs because there are students who do not have the laptops, the other things associated with access and internet.”

HBCUS were financially vulnerable well before the coronavirus pandemic.

The institutions have much lower endowments than non-HBCU schools.

Many HBCUs also rely on state or federal subsidies which are affected by the lagging economy.

“We kind of started in the negative,” said Marion Ross Fredrick, President of Albany State University, about the lack of funding for HBCUs.

The CARES Act included more than $500 million for HBCUs, and school leaders are hoping Congress continues to help the institutions.

“The majority of our students, well over 60%  of our students, are Pell-eligible which means they are on need-based aid,” Fredrick said. “Therefore, when we do things like close the campus or tell everyone to just go online, that is not an easy feat and so we need funds to make sure that our students do have the technology that they need. Everything from a laptop to a hot spot.”

Some HBCUs are also expecting the pandemic to negatively impact enrollment, which can have a financial impact on the institutions.

“Most of us are anticipating a decline in enrollment,” Robinson said. “I do believe that we’re beginning to see some of the financial implications of COVID-19 on the very demographic that we serve.”

"I think there is a greater expectation that relief and support would be forthcoming from Congress," Wutoh said.

There are 107 HBUs in the U.S. serving more than 228,000 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.