More than 40 presidents of historically Black colleges and universities and dozens of other leaders are gathering in Atlanta this week for a summit conference organized by the United Negro College Fund to discuss opportunities to better support the estimated 300,000 students who attend these schools.

One issue that’s been the talk of the town for HBCU leaders in recent weeks is the recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that struck down race-conscious college admissions programs and the Biden administration’s student loan debt forgiveness plan.

The schools believe the rulings will result in an influx in applications as more Black students see HBCUs as a more viable enrollment option. But HBCU leaders say they will need better facilities to accommodate more students and are looking for more help from the federal government and philanthropists.

HBCUs have continually been underfunded since inception. From 1987 to 2020, HBCUs were getting shortchanged by $12.8 billion in comparison to predominantly white institutions, according to a report by the news site Forbes.

Large U.S. foundations steadily decreased their support of HBCUs between 2002 and 2019, according to a recent study by the research group Candid in partnership with ABFE, a nonprofit pushing for investment in Black communities. The foundations awarded $65 million to HBCUs in 2002; by 2019, giving decreased 30% to $45 million, according to the report. Many HBCUs, including those in Atlanta, have received some of their largest donations since 2020. Netflix co-founder and executive chairman Reed Hastings and his wife, philanthropist Patty Quillin, for example, in 2020 donated $120 million to be divided equally among Spelman and Morehouse colleges and the UNCF. Later that year, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated $15 million to Clark Atlanta University.

The historic underfunding has resulted in many HBCUs lacking the same capabilities as predominantly white institutions to conduct research, experts say.

HBCU leaders like Clark Atlanta President George T. French Jr. would like to see more government support for their schools.

“It’s time now for the city of Atlanta to turn to Clark Atlanta and others schools with HBCUs, to make the same investments that they have made in, in these other world-class institutions,” said French.

French said Clark Atlanta has plans to meet with philanthropists, “big influencers in the space” to potentially help with funding. French declined to name names of these potential donors. He also called for more funding from the U.S. Department of Education and research support from federal agencies like the National Science Foundation.

The UNCF’s UNITE Summit will focus in part on helping more HBCUs implement online degree programs as a way to enroll more students. Its HBCUv platform will be launching this fall with nine universities, including Clark Atlanta. The eventual goal is to have all HBCUs on the platform by 2028, UNCF officials said.

UNCF leaders and others believe more online platforms could help accommodate the expected enrollment increase, particularly considering the infrastructure challenges at many HBCUs. Some students from Atlanta’s HBCUs protested on their campuses two years ago demanding improved student housing. Many of the issues still exist, some students say.

While local HBCU leaders say they’re working to improve their facilities, they say the historic underfunding makes it challenging for the schools to admit more students.

Morehouse College, for example, enrolled about 2,200 students last school year. The school could easily grow by up to 1,000 students without affecting the quality of students admitted, its president, David A. Thomas, said in a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview. The challenge, however, is that it and other HBCUs don’t have the staff, faculty and facilities to accommodate such big increases.

More realistically, Morehouse has the capacity to slowly add another 300 students, he said.

Morehouse student Hunter Bonaparte believes the federal government and college administrators share responsibility for improving campus facilities.

“They love building new buildings, but they don’t want to fix the ones they have right now,” said Bonaparte.

Another challenge is affordability. College tuition nationally has increased by 13.4% in the past 10 years since the 2011-2012 school year, according to federal data. Statistics show a larger percentage of HBCU students come from low-income households and have greater challenges paying for college.

About 75% of students who attend HBCUs are eligible for federal Pell Grants for low-income students, said Michael Lomax, the UNCF’s chief executive officer. Lomax’s words for a solution on the affordability issue were simple: expand the Pell Grant.

The maximum amount for it for the upcoming school year is $7,395. By increasing the power of the Pell, it would allow for financially struggling students to have more aid.

“We’re still pushing for doubling the Pell Grant,” Lomax said in an interview with the AJC.

About 1.6 million Georgians have student loan debt, with the average amount of debt being about $42,000.

Despite the challenges, prominent figures in the HBCU community like French and Lomax aren’t in despair.

“We will be better for this at the end. We always are. And I really need us to hear that,” said French.

Georgia’s HBCUs

There are 10 accredited historically Black colleges and universities in Georgia. Here’s the current enrollment in each school:

Albany State University 6,358

Clark Atlanta University 4,000

Savannah State University 2,962

Fort Valley State University 2,609

Morehouse College 2,554

Spelman College 2,374

Morehouse School of Medicine 753

Morris Brown College 290

Paine College 251

Interdenominational Theological Center 237

Sources: Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, National Center for Education Statistics, University System of Georgia.

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