The Challenges Facing HBCUs

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What do you do when competitors break into your space and deliver even better service to your most valuable customers? If your company wants to survive, you improve the service to customers and make it available on every platform on which they might consume it. You track your results and double down on those strategies that succeed while jettisoning those that don’t. You increase your marketing to attract as much of your core target audience as possible.

In short, you employ every business strategy you can find.

That is the challenge facing HBCUs – Historically Black Colleges and Universities – once the only source of higher education for African Americans. As the nation began to understand the need for diversity in its universities, the competition for the best black students heated up and many found their way to the top schools in the nation. That has left HBCUs with a dwindling pool of applicants, financial issues and diminishing reputations. Just 11% of African American college students attend HBCUs today.

A New Day at South Carolina State University
South Carolina State University (SCSU) was facing declining enrollment, potential loss of accreditation because of financial problems, and a $20 million shortfall when it declared the academic equivalent of bankruptcy in 2015, after then-Gov. Nikki Haley fired its board of trustees. In 2016, the institution hired as its president James Clark, an MIT graduate in electrical engineering and computer science who helped transform a money-losing division of AT&T into a profitable $1 billion operation.

Clark has brought free market discipline to the institution. He has sought to diversify the student body by age, geography, learning style, working status, modes of consumption and more. He established working relationships with the Lowcountry Graduate Center and other off-site campuses to deliver classes virtually across the state.

“Classes are now delivered from central depositories and broadcast anywhere because that is the way the world is going,” he said. Classes can be consumed synchronously in the classroom or via broadcast, or asynchronously from the cloud where they are downloaded when convenient to students.

For SCSU, that dramatically expands the pool of students who can matriculate without attending class in Orangeburg, an hour south of Columbia and an hour-and-a-half north of Charleston. It appeals to active military during and in between deployments. It appeals to mid-career graduate students in lower South Carolina who don’t have the time to travel to campus, as well as prospective students anywhere else in the country.

KPIs Around Metrics That Matter
Clark has also instituted key performance indicators for its divisions to meet, including robust job placement statistics. The MBA program has earned and maintained accreditation from The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the premier accrediting body for business programs, with only 5% of business programs worldwide earning the distinction. But that is no match for a successful record of connecting graduates to jobs. SCSU now tracks its graduates and reports its results. At a recent gathering at the LGC, Dr. Matthew Guah, MBA program director, told prospective students that he had visited 10 companies throughout Metro Charleston to establish a pipeline for graduates.

“These organizations want you to work for them,” he told the crowd. “They’re seeking to increase their minority representation. It’s our job to place you.”

The intentional modularity of the MBA program allows students to race towards graduation in a year or spread it out over four, thereby simultaneously accommodating recent undergrads who want to start their careers and working parents who can add only so many new balls to their juggling act.

Tough Sledding for HBCUs Nationwide
All of this comes as an exasperated state legislature breathes down SCSU’s neck. State governments across the nation, particularly in the South, have starved their HBCUs for resources while demanding better results and more accountability. This clashes with one role of the HBCU – to take risks on minority students such as first-generation college-bound and others less prepared for college by the public education system than their white counterparts.

The pressure on SCSU is common among HBCUs. The Council for Regional Accreditation Commissions began in 2018 increasing its scrutiny of colleges and universities with undergraduate graduation rates below 25%. At HBCUs, the six-year average is 37% and the four-year average is estimated to be as low as 12%.

Facing the Challenge at SCSU
Faced with these challenges, SCSU has stepped up its marketing statewide to recruit students. The recent meet-and-greet reception for the Healthcare Management MBA program at the LGC is one example of the school’s efforts. Clark and top administrators are taking the same show to other areas of the state as well.

Many of the changes being implemented at SCSU grew out of recommendations from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges in 2014. It challenged HBCUs to “rethink the way they recruit and reach out to students; reexamine the types of academic programs they offer and how they deliver them; re-imagine the idea of what student success looks like; (and to) re-engineer the current business model, among other proposals.”

South Carolina State University is executing just this plan and will be a test case to determine if this repositioning can help an HBCU thrive.

 “It’s a business imperative and an opportunity,” Clark said, “and you’re just seeing the beginning.”