Three days before Payton Wilkins returned home to Detroit last May with a bachelor’s degree, his cousin was arrested for selling heroin and crack cocaine.
“Before I came to college I was hanging out with him so it’s a really good chance I would be in prison right now,” said Wilkins, 24, the first person in his family to graduate from college. He had no college plans until his mom made him apply to Dillard University, a private historically black school in New Orleans.
For generations, such colleges and universities have played a key role in educating young African-Americans like Wilkins.
But facing often steep declines in enrollment, these schools are struggling to survive. In the last 20 years, five historically black colleges and universities — or HBCU’s — have shut down and about a dozen have dealt with accreditation issues.
South Carolina State University, that state’s only public historically black higher education institution, had its accreditation placed on probation last month after the school was cited for financial problems.
Morris Brown College, a 133-year-old private institution in Atlanta, filed for bankruptcy in August 2012 and has received court approval to sell some of its property.
Last year, North Carolina elected officials flirted with the idea of merging Elizabeth City State University, a public historically black college, with another institution after its enrollment had dropped by 900 students in three years.
An outcry from supporters saved the school and stirred up support from the state’s Legislative Black Caucus last month.
Historically black colleges once were the only option for most black students, who made up almost 100 percent of their enrollment in 1950. That began to change in the 1960s, as many doors that once were shut to blacks were opened.
Now that black students have a much wider choice of schools, only 11 percent of African-American college students choose a historically black college or university.
Abdul S. Rasheed, a member of Elizabeth City State’s board of trustees, said that in order for historically black schools to survive, their graduates and supporters must take control of their own future.
While financial contributions to U.S. colleges rose slightly in 2013, on average at historically black colleges, only 10 percent of alumni give back.
“If nothing changes, they will eliminate them,” says Rasheed. “That will be the biggest mistake this country has ever made.”
Marybeth Gasman, an expert on historically black colleges and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said states should support black colleges because they are doing the “lion’s share” of the work for first generation-students like Wilkins.
“Historically black colleges serve low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, adult learners, part-time students, students who might be what I call ‘swirlers’ who swirl in and swirl out of academe,” says Gasman.
Eighty-four percent of students at historically black schools receive Pell Grants, which are federal, need-based funds awarded to low-income students.
Wilkins says the question of relevancy for HBCU’s is itself irrelevant.
“Coming to Dillard, I really wasn’t prepared academically. Dillard brought out of me this urge to want to learn,” says Wilkins. He graduated with a political science degree and plans to go to law school.
As society changes, many historically black colleges and universities are not all black anymore. One of every four students at a historically black institution is Hispanic, Asian-American, white or of another ethnicity.
Zane Lewis, a white freshman from Sanford, North Carolina, plans to major in business or marketing at North Carolina Central University, a historically black school in Durham.
“I thought I wasn’t really going to fit in but, I mean, everyone has been really friendly so far,” says Lewis. “I just want to walk away saying that they didn’t treat me different.”
Gasman says states are reluctant to support historically black colleges because they consider them segregated — although largely white universities can be less integrated than the historically black schools.
“We are no more separate than Chapel Hill is,” says Rasheed, referring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the student body was 66 percent white last fall, according to data from the college portrait of undergraduate education website.
“If they close down Elizabeth City State, are they going to allow 2,000 more African-Americans and others to be admitted at other campuses?” he asked.