Special report: Universities founded to offer minorities an escape from poverty struggling to fulfill their mission in Louisiana

Sabrina Charatain began the fall semester at Southern University in Baton Rouge last year without textbooks, waiting for money from her student loan to come through.

She plays a similar waiting game with the military benefits she earns for serving in the reserves. The money doesn’t show up until the end of the month. In the meantime, she hopes for enough hours at her job downtown, working nearly full-time when she can. Without any help from her family, she has no extra margin.

“Hopefully, I’ll make it this month,” she said recently, her eyes welling and her voice shrinking to a thin whisper. “You gotta work hard.”

This is where Louisiana’s budget cuts have landed hardest the past eight years: on the shoulders of students who would have been struggling to pay for college anyway. And the suffering is most acute at Southern and the state’s other historically black schools.

At Southern, tuition and fees have climbed almost 90 percent since 2008 to make up for the loss of direct aid from the state. Where tuition used to account for just over a third of the school’s budget, it’s now almost two-thirds.

Students across town at predominantly white LSU are coping with similar increases in tuition and fees, but more than half of them receive merit-based scholarships from the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, shielding both students and the institution they attend from the worst of the budget cuts. At Southern and the state’s other predominantly black schools, only a tiny fraction of students qualify for TOPS scholarships.

The result is that universities founded to offer a historically disenfranchised minority an escape from poverty are struggling more and more to fulfill their mission in Louisiana. Faculty members are fleeing. Graduation rates remain low. Enrollment has declined, and the number of black students attending four-year schools in Louisiana is shrinking. (The numbers of black students at two-year colleges has grown, meanwhile.)

The plight of Louisiana’s historically black colleges has occasionally grabbed public attention, as when Grambling State University football players boycotted games a few years ago because of the shocking condition of their athletic facilities.

Every episode comes with painful questions about a set of institutions born of the “separate but equal” doctrine that was supposed to have been discarded decades ago. When financial strains prompted lawmakers to try to merge the predominantly white University of New Orleans with neighboring Southern University at New Orleans in 2011, it was a nonstarter for black alumni who would not watch their alma mater be subsumed.

The dilemma these schools face is an old one. In the 1980s, the federal government ordered Louisiana to merge the parallel systems that govern schools founded for black and white students. Black leaders resisted and negotiated a compromise that kept them independent. No one wanted to lose institutions and traditions that had preserved scarce opportunities for generations of black students, even if those institutions were born of segregation.

But these schools would inevitably feel the strain as many of the best-qualified black students decided to attend the mostly white campuses now open to them.

Two decades ago, 54 percent of black students attending public universities in Louisiana were at historically black schools. Today, it’s 38 percent.

And since many of the strongest students have left, the historically black schools struggle to improve on the metrics they’re increasingly judged by — especially graduation rates, which are kept low both by student achievement and by many students’ inability to go to school full-time. SUNO’s graduation rate has at times been among the lowest in the nation.

The budget cuts have only made matters worse, raising barriers in the form of growing tuition and fees for students who are often barely able to afford college.

Lawmakers and administrators say the solution may be to reorganize the state’s universities, even if policymakers stop short of closing or merging campuses. Conrad Appel, the Republican state senator from Metairie who led the failed push to merge UNO and SUNO, argues that Louisiana’s entire system of higher education — historically black schools included — needs to be rethought in light of tight budgets and changing needs. “Are we maintaining schools so we can have good football teams, or are we trying to deliver education for students living in the 21st century?” he said.

Ray Belton, who was hired last summer to lead the Southern University system, which has a portfolio of three universities, agrees that schools could do more to avoid duplicating efforts with nearby campuses. “We can ill afford to have everyone doing the same thing,” Belton said.

But the state also needs to do its part, he argues. The Legislature could cap the number of dollars going to TOPS, Louisiana’s merit-based tuition assistance program, and put more money into need-based scholarships, he suggested. Or at least find a way to halt the cuts in direct aid.

“The uncertainty does not allow you to make responsible decisions,” Belton said. “Resources matter. Money matters.”

Strained faculty, students

Thomas Miller, an associate professor at Southern who teaches French and German, is still hopeful about the school’s future, in part because he doesn’t see how things could deteriorate any further.

“It’s hard to imagine the budget picture being any worse than it is today,” said Miller, who has been at the school for 20 years and serves as president of the Faculty Senate.

“What keeps us hanging on is we believe we’re at a point where the Legislature — and I think the general populace — realizes that higher education has been cut to such an extent that it is hurting the state’s economic outlook. It’s harming the students who are here to get an education. Quite frankly, it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep good faculty on board.”

The overall number of employees at Southern has dropped from 1,169 in 2009 to fewer than 670. There haven’t been any raises for faculty in seven years and only a few small increases in the past two decades. The groundskeepers, who have seen their numbers diminish along with the faculty, have been stuck at minimum wage.

The physical wear and tear on campus also is apparent. Librarians this fall described a leaky ceiling and elevators that couldn’t be used because the fire-alarm system was on the fritz. On orders from the fire marshal, staff had to walk the entire building every hour checking for smoke.

The music department had to vacate its building recently because of a mold problem and move in with the College of Education, Arts and Humanities; practice rooms had to be improvised. (Administrators say the problem has since been remedied.)

Miller said the pay for faculty — an associate professor like him typically earns about $50,000 — is making it difficult to compete with other institutions. To attract staff, the school is being forced to hire newly minted Ph.D. graduates at higher salaries than departing professors, who are taking off for better-paying opportunities.

Just a few months ago, Miller said, his department lost an instructor of Spanish and Chinese who had worked with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, had brought visiting scholars from China and had taken graduate students to do research on linguistics in West Africa.

“And he finally just said, ‘I’ve had enough,’ ” Miller said. “He’s gotten other offers, and he’s moved on.”

Other departments are losing out on opportunities to grow and invest in their programs, Miller said. The environmental toxicology department has a strong faculty but not enough students, in part because it doesn’t have the money for materials or research stipends that would attract more doctorate candidates.

Miller sees the strain in his students as well, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college and have to work as many as 20 or 30 hours a week to pay their bills, sometimes skipping class to pick up shifts.

He worries the cuts will do lasting damage, even if things improve in the near term. “When you lose faculty and nationally your reputation starts to dim because of a well-deserved perception that there’s a lack of commitment to higher education, that message stays out there,” Miller said. “It has a half-life of at least 15 years, 20 years.”

Embedded in culture

Historically black schools, founded mostly during Reconstruction to educate the children of former slaves, started facing questions about their continued existence as early as the 1970s.

The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit aimed at integrating Louisiana’s universities in 1974, resulting in a 1981 consent decree that created joint programs between Southern and LSU and pumped millions of state dollars into Southern for more modern facilities.

Today, the racial mix is less stark but only marginally so. Southern’s Baton Rouge campus was still 92 percent black last year, down just slightly from 94 percent in 1995. At LSU, meanwhile, the percentage of black students has climbed from about 8 percent in 1995 to just more than 11 percent.

Like historically black schools throughout the U.S., those in Louisiana are consistently outranked by predominantly white institutions, reflecting broader racial inequalities that also turn up in statistics about family income and K-12 academic achievement.

But they remain deeply embedded in the state’s culture. For young students like Ashley Ambrose, an aspiring lawyer, Southern is a part of her family history. Her grandfather taught in the math department, and her grandmother still has the picture of her uncle in his Southern football uniform hanging in her house.

“My uncle never told me, ‘Ashley, don’t go to Southern because you’re not going to learn anything. It’s a horrible school,’ ” Ambrose said recently, chatting with another undergraduate in the faculty lounge in T.T. Allain Hall. “I feel like if it was a bad school, he would not let me go here.”

The latest generation of students attending historically black schools has chosen to do so for complicated reasons: family connections, pride in black institutions and a sense of belonging that is sometimes tricky to articulate, especially in an era when ideas about racial differences are supposed to have been relegated to history. These students are conscious of the fact that black schools’ reputations have dimmed.

Ambrose said she considered LSU before changing her mind. “I just assumed it would be harder for me as a black student,” she said. “I felt like I might experience some type of prejudice, and at an HBCU, I wouldn’t have that problem because it’s all of my people here.”

Kiara Lewis, a sophomore, said she felt differently. She chose Southern because she wanted her tuition money to go to a historically black school. “I just think about, back then, we weren’t even allowed to go there,” she said, referring to LSU. “You’re asking me ‘Why Southern?’ I mean, why not?”

Both women said they feel the financial strain that Southern is under. Even with Pell Grants and a TOPS scholarship, Ambrose has taken on student loans that have saddled her with more than $20,000 worth of debt. She put off the beginning of her freshman year because she couldn’t afford the fees. She works nights at a Circle K.

Lewis, who has a 3-year-old daughter, works at a transportation company and has skipped several semesters in order to save money. “College is so expensive that a Pell Grant is only paying a half or a third of it,” Lewis said.

‘Is there a need for HBCUs?’

The dilemma posed by historically black schools has been the subject of landmark court decisions and fiercely disputed academic research.

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court found it was not enough for Mississippi to simply end racial discrimination in admissions policies at public universities, where enrollment patterns had changed little since the days of “separate but equal.” The court ruled that state legislatures must integrate higher education unless they could provide an “educational justification” for continued state support of schools that remain overwhelmingly black.

Thus, the court left open the question of whether simply maintaining two separate sets of institutions established during segregation was inherently unconstitutional. Justice Clarence Thomas even wrote a concurring opinion clarifying that he did not interpret the decision as mandating the end of historically black schools. He argued it was entirely plausible that states might offer educational opportunities that appealed disproportionately to one racial group or another without intentionally fostering segregation.

“It would be ironic, to say the least,” Thomas wrote, “if the institutions that sustained blacks during segregation were themselves destroyed in an effort to combat its vestiges.”

Still, some have raised doubts about whether there really is an “educational justification” for maintaining public HBCUs. In 2007, a pair of economists from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a study showing that HBCU graduates had lost the economic edge that attending a black school had provided a generation earlier. They found that between the 1970s and the 1990s, the earnings of HBCU graduates had declined 20 percent in relation to peers who attended historically white schools, concluding that “on many dimensions and by some measures HBCU attendance appears to retard black progress.”

In 2011, a group of economists from Morehouse College and Howard University answered with a study suggesting that the economic advantages of attending an HBCU had actually held up over the same period. They also used survey data to estimate the relative psychological advantage of attending an historically black school, writing that “HBCUs have a comparative advantage in nurturing the self-image, self-esteem, and identity of its graduates.”

Herbert Simmons is aware of this debate. “The question is being asked;” he said recently, sitting in a tiny, windowless office with peeling wallpaper in the Jacob T. Stewart building at Grambling, “ ‘Is there a need for HBCUs?’ ”

The answer was simpler when Simmons attended Grambling on a band scholarship in the 1960s. He was the type of student Grambling was founded for, raised in the little town of Jonesboro by a widowed grandmother who could not sign her own name and made a living picking cotton and corn, her grandson by her side. He remembers passing Louisiana Tech, one highway exit down the road from Grambling, and knowing he could never attend.

He got his bachelor’s degree in 1965, went on to get a law degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and began a successful career there as a professor and department head at Howard and in jobs with city government. After returning to Louisiana, he served as undersecretary at the state Department of Social Services during Gov. Buddy Roemer’s administration.

Simmons came back to Grambling 17 years ago, first as director of alumni affairs and then as a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice. Watching his alma mater shrink and his fellow professors depart has been painful.

The school’s enrollment has declined by a third in the past two decades. Academic programs have been cut. Despite tuition hikes, revenue is down 16 percent since the state’s budget crisis began. Administrative turnover has been high. Frank Pogue, hired as president in 2009, left in 2014 after a high-profile clash with the school’s football coach over deep cuts to the athletic budget.

His replacement, Willie Larkin, knows what kind of job is in front of him. “My top priority is to get students here,” he said, noting that tuition is now the school’s primary source of funding.

He called the $4 million budget deficit he inherited “kind of scary” and mentioned weekly calls with the school’s National Alumni Association to try to increase giving, as well as meetings with corporate leaders in the hopes of attracting donations.

Larkin and Simmons both think Grambling can be saved — and that it’s worth saving.

“Grambling is still an institution that’s known worldwide, has a worldwide reputation,” Simmons said. “Our band has been to the Super Bowl more than some teams, performed in three or four presidential parades.”

Simmons sees Grambling as a victim of history, and in a way, of its own success. The school spent decades training students for jobs that would give them entree into the middle class, Simmons said, but only if they fled a state where, until after the 1960s, most middle-class jobs were reserved for whites. He argues that Grambling and Southern should even be exempted from having to charge out-of-state tuition in order to attract the sons and daughters of alumni living in places like Chicago and California.

“I’ve said to President Larkin, ‘You cannot fail. For the future of this institution, you cannot fail.’ ” Simmons recalled, pointing out that some historically black schools in the U.S. have simply vanished. “I never want to see the day when I drive past this campus and say, ‘That’s where Grambling used to be.’”

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