FAMU Strikes the Balance on HBCU Enrollment Management Strategy

According to the Pew Research Center overall enrollment for HBCUs has grown over the last few decades to nearly 300,000 students at 100 HBCUs. Currently, the largest mainstream four-year HBCU (excluding two-year St. Phillip’s College in San Antonio) is North Carolina A&T State University. When examining the top HBCUs by enrollment, it is apparent that the majority of public HBCUs have large undergraduate and graduate populations powered by 8,000 or more students and making our campuses into economic anchors for black communities in their respective cities and states.

However, some of the large, public HBCUs struggle with the typical metrics of institutional success. Graduation and retention rates, student loan debt and default rates, and student demographics drive the legislative narratives about how colleges and universities serve the minority populations of states.

This leaves many HBCUs with a challenge to balance maintaining higher enrollment to accrue tuition revenue while working to grow admissions standards to help improve retention and graduation rates.

This balancing act is exacerbated by the current push in higher education for diversity; especially at second tier level state-funded PWIs. The push affects our state-funded HBCUs more than private HBCUs because of system-wide competition created by states adopting performance-based funding systems.

A prime example is in the University System of Maryland. Towson University’s African American student enrollment has risen from 14% to over 21% just in the last five years. It’s also important to note that Towson University is less than five miles away from Maryland’s flagship, preeminent urban research institution, Morgan State University; one of our beloved HBCUs.

The trend of black flight to white institutions is particularly alarming because higher education enrollment in the nation is beginning to recede while oversight agencies are beginning to crack down on institutions posting lower metrics in key areas such as graduation rates, post-graduate earnings, and student loan debt ratios. Data reveals that several public and private HBCUs are adapting to the trends with new best practices in maintaining the HBCU dual mission of broad access and academic rigor.

In the public HBCU sector, few schools have done more to enhance positive enrollment outcomes than Florida A&M University. FAMU just missed the mark to receive additional metric driven state funding, standards which many believe are biased against FAMU’s mission. Since posting a peak enrollment of 13,277 in the fall of 2010, FAMU enrollment has dropped by 30% to 9,312 students in spring of 2018; but the average grade point average for incoming freshman rose steadily over the same period.

The average grade point average for the classes entering between 2017 and 2018 has risen from 3.39 to over 3.50. Graduation rates will take time for these recently admitted classes to show off their graduation rates; but FAMU leadership projects completion percentages should grow from around 40% to over 60% by 2022 with some early indications of positive effects on student performance.

It is important to note that FAMU did experience some administration turnover that affected overall enrollment following the Marching 100 hazing death of Robert Champion in fall 201, which also lead to the subsequent resignation of former president, James Ammons.

Many private HBCUs already boast extremely high admission standards with very small enrollments like Fisk, Morehouse, and Spelman, while posting among the highest graduation and retention rates in the HBCU landscape. Every university has to operate in the unique circumstances of their state’s higher education arena and contend with a myriad of mitigating factors.

FAMU appears to be an example of what many schools will be continuing to do to contend with higher education critique and balancing enrollment and graduation rates. It is the only public HBCU in the entire state of Florida; compared to North Carolina which supports five public HBCUs or Maryland with four. FAMU’s challenges are similar to those at NCAT and Morgan when it comes to legislative lobbying and making the case for HBCU value, but as the lone institution of its kind, its narrative is that much more vulnerable to public scrutiny, commentary and policymaking designed to help or harm its cause.

It is imperative for HBCU leaders to strategically plan for the future with more attention to the of cost and benefits of higher education within the context of America’s student loan debt crisis. Reducing overall enrollment and increasing student quality may be easier at FAMU than at campuses like Norfolk State and South Carolina State, which face increasing competition from PWIs and community colleges and changing rules on institutional performance.

But the continued survival of our beloved institutions depends on the willingness and vision of our leaders to adapt to the times, regardless of our geographic or political environments.