How Will HBCUs Survive in a Post-Coronavirus World? Five Questions to Consider

A world with billions of people who were using technology to draw ever closer to each other will now be defined by how expertly those people can stay apart. Higher education, which grew virtually unaffordable through sprawling building construction, executive salaries, and pension-created deficits will soon be defined by how few of those buildings and employees will actually be needed to deliver education and job training.

The future was already rapidly changing, and a virus that has proven more easily transmitted and more lethal than any country on the planet was prepared to handle, has now accelerated our need to adapt. For historically black colleges and universities, the time is now to answer at least five basic questions about the survival of communities and industry, before politics and economics claim many of these institutions all too easily.

  1. What happens when HBCUs students do not come back and stop attending at all? - Any major disruption in education leads to massive amounts of dropouts. Natural disasters and mass shootings always have a relatively short-term beginning and end; COVID-19 spread and response will not have a defined end. All HBCUs will have to contend with new national rules on recruiting practices, fundraising for scholarships, and life without recruiting fairs and high school visits through the primary season for signing students.

    And if these practices are not reinstated in the future in the name of “increased competitiveness,” will HBCUs be able to adapt to attract the best and brightest and those students with unrealized academic potential?

  2. How will industrial changes impact funding for HBCU academic programs? - COVID-19 response will come in two phases for the United States — the long-term approach to preventing the spread of the virus, and the longer-term approach to making sure that the country and the world never again face such a threat. So what will this mean to federal funding from agencies like the Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Agriculture and other areas where HBCUs draw much of their funding? Science, technology, engineering, and mathematical programs stand to be fine, but what about education, hospitality, communications, criminal justice, and social sciences?

    Industries designed for groups of people to be around each other will look entirely different in the near future — and so will the federal and private money supporting their labor pipelines.

  3. What will be the new technological norm for HBCUs? - Several HBCUs have been struggling with converting instruction to online modules. For years the need for the conversion was stymied by classroom access and some faculty members hiding fears of the technology training behind the culture of student engagement. Now those fears have been abandoned and unwilling faculty have been pushed into the nether-regions of tech know-how. How many faculty members will embrace this push and how many will opt out and retire as a result? How many students will accept online instruction if their learning is best suited by in-person, personalized instruction?

    More importantly, will this period force more HBCUs into massive tech overhauls to upgrade personal data protection systems, VPN access, human resources onboarding and archiving, and security systems for building access and surveillance? If we may have to move in more limited circles of human interaction, what systems will be in place to mandate this new norm?

  4. What happens if the feds, states stop paying for traditional instruction? - If enrollment numbers go down and new rules on human interactivity are established, what happens if the federal government stops funding activities which don’t offer online service provision as a first option? More importantly, what if the US Department of Education uses the pause in operations to stop funding schools on the Heightened Cash Monitoring list, on accreditation sanction lists, or even institutions that do not meet a total student enrollment threshold? If there was ever a time for the government to say “here’s what we’re not going to pay for anymore,” it would be a period when so much funding has to go to save lives and it would come from the education funding line.

  5. What if your HBCU has a president or a board of trustees who hasn’t thought about or discussed any of this? - Lawmakers are already discussing the outcomes behind the scenes. How many of our HBCUs have begun the discussions on how to counteract what may be legislatively coming six, 12 or even 24 months from now?

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