Economy hits historically black colleges hard

Zakiya Williams had found a perfect fit at Spelman College. But when the tough economy hit the sophomore and her family hard, she packed her bags, ready to drop out.

"I was not able to get loans, nor were my parents," she said. "It became really difficult because I felt all my avenues were exhausted."

It’s a familiar story at colleges across the country, especially at historically black colleges and universities where, in some cases, up to 95 percent of students rely on financial aid to fund their education.

President Obama has increased Pell Grant funding to a maximum of $5,500 per student with stimulus and budget funds.

But still, many black colleges expect enrollment rates to keep shrinking as families and students struggle in the economic downturn.

"Every college and university is asking the question, ‘What will our enrollment be next year?’ not because of a change in institution, but because families are really being hit by the economy every day," Spelman College President Beverly Tatum said.

"Many students want to come, but will they be able to afford to come?"

Since 2004, $238 million in federal funding has been earmarked annually for historically black colleges. In the last two years, those institutions benefited from an extra $85 million each year under the College Cost Reduction and Access Act. When that program ends in May 2010, the institutions may feel the squeeze even more.

"We are under resourced," Clark Atlanta University President Carlton Brown said. "We try to keep our costs as low as possible. That means that our margins are always very tight."

In the Atlanta area alone, Morehouse College laid off 25 adjunct professors, Spelman is eliminating 35 jobs next year, and Clark Atlanta University’s budget ax fell mid-semester with 70 professors and 30 staff members let go.

"Some of our schedules got changed, all in the middle of the semester," said Clark Atlanta student Demetra Rochelle. "It was pretty rough."

The White House budget office says Obama’s proposed budget calls for a 5 percent increase in permanent funding for historically black colleges. But many in the black college community wanted more.

"We’re saying you’re moving in the right direction, but unfortunately in these tough times, not far enough," said United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael Lomax.

For Zakiya Williams, a scholarship came through at the last minute, and she says the struggle to stay at Spelman was worth it.

"I was completely relieved," she said. "Now I am focusing on my studies. … This place was meant for me."


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