HBCUs in South Carolina could face potential financial crisis amid COVID-19 pandemic

Published: May. 26, 2020 at 6:18 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - College institutions nationwide could face financial hurdles if campus doors remain closed due to COVID-19 concerns.

It's a jarring prospect for Historically Black Colleges and Universities in our state. Benedict College is one of eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities in South Carolina. President Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis describes a "sobering" reality this fall if students are unable to return safely to campus. She estimates millions in revenue shortfall in student housing alone.

"It becomes a significant financial barrier to us," said Dr. Artis.

"If we were to limit our students going to a room, it would cut our housing capacity in half, which is about a $3.4 million dollar impact," she continued. "So, I'm going to lose seven-million dollars next year on a 50-million dollar budget, if I have to keep everybody in a virtual environment. That's only at half mass."

Benedict, like many HBCUs nationally, remains at a disadvantage economically. A 2019 American Council on Education report found "within both private and public sectors, HBCU endowments lag behind those of non-HBCUs by at least 70 percent."

"When you don't have the wherewithal of endowments and that sort of thing, it's much more challenging for you," U.S. Congressman James E. Clyburn stated.

One of the many unanticipated costs due to the COVID-19 crisis came with a shift to online learning for Benedict, both from an infrastructure standpoint and faculty training.

"Technology is taking a little more catch-up than enhancement," added Dr. Artis. "We have to ensure our systems are fortified."

If Benedict stays online, it could hurt the bottom line with lower enrollment.

"Students applied and admitted to traditional HBCU experience, whether hybrid or online, those students may change their minds. The cost of cleaning and PPE and social distancing to us, in terms of spacing students out in dormitories. It's not about the students that want to come. It's going to be our ability to safely serve them in the fall will be significantly constrained by virtue that we are a small intimate campus. We don't have the physical space."

Over in Orangeburg, South Carolina State had a comparatively minimal expense after the switch to only virtual. It positioned itself for online learning years ago after its highly-publicized fiscal crisis.

"The tough situation we had been, we had to learn to scrap and scramble financially," said S.C. State President James Clark. "We had to work to get to a place to function better in these tough times."

The CARES Act provided Benedict College $4 million in financial assistance, half of which was allocated to students. Dr. Artis, grateful for the aid, will lose substantially more on housing alone, without factoring a shortfall in tuition dollars if enrollment drops.

"When I say a drop in the bucket, I am not overstating that," said Dr. Artis

HBCUs like Benedict and S.C. State already discount the cost of attendance for many of its students to make education affordable. Of those within the Benedict student body, 84% is PELL Grant dependent, according to President Dr. Artis. At S.C. State, President James Clark said 80% of the student body is PELL eligible. PELL is a small federal grant for those with exceptional financial need.

"When we scrap and find money for that student, some kind of scholarship to help them through, we are being transformational," added Clark. "Helping those, but for the existence of us (HBCUs), would not have a chance."

The American Council on Education report found public HBCUs are 16% more reliant on federal, state, and local funding compared to its non-HBCU counterparts.

U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn called on more significant support on all levels of government to help keep the lights on at HBCUs.

"A tremendous hardship will be visited upon families who find HBCUs as a special niche," said Clyburn.

Congressman Clyburn, a product of an S.C. State, said South Carolina needs to do more to fund HBCUs.

"Even the ones that are public have been short on funding when it comes to state support over the years," added Clyburn.

Without HBCUs, it could eliminate valuable access points for in-state minority students, said Clyburn.

The congressman shared a story of Lake City native Ronald McNair. He was an American NASA astronaut who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger mission in 1986. Before his death, he told Clyburn his HBCU experience made the difference.

"He always felt that if he had gone to a larger institution, he would have been a statistic rather than a success," said Clyburn.

Dr. Artis emphasizes the significance of an HBCU education in South Carolina.

“Imagine 64% of our 2,200 students are South Carolina residents, low-wealth disenfranchised students of color,” said Dr. Artis. “What happens when there is no entry point to the economic system if they have nowhere to go? We can’t ignore numbers that significant.”

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