THE state of historically black colleges and universities isn't good. Just last week, the chief executive of an organization that awards students scholarships to schools known collectively as HBCUs described them as “teetering on the edge.”
“Without some kind of intervention, 20 percent to 30 percent (of the schools) cannot survive another decade,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Langston University is one of 106 HBCUs. It's the only one in Oklahoma. The Oklahoman reported last week that Langston's freshman enrollment saw a dramatic increase. We hope this is the start of a new and improved enrollment trend for the school.
Langston has 615 full-time freshman students, up from 422 a year ago — a 45 percent increase. However, data from the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education is sobering. A report examining a five-year trend of first-time freshman enrollment in Oklahoma's public higher education institutions from the 2005-2006 school year to the 2009-2010 school year found that Langston had the largest freshman enrollment drop, at 34.5 percent. The average for other regional four-year institutions was a 3.1 percent growth.
Throughout the 2000s, many of Oklahoma's regional universities experienced overall enrollment growth. Langston was one of only two regional schools to see an enrollment decline. The other was the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha.
At a recent national conference of historically black schools, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged that changes in a federal loan program for parents caused some problems for students and prospective students at HBCUs nationwide. Duncan also said poorly funded endowments, low faculty salaries and outdated buildings are serious challenges.
Working in Langston's favor is fresh leadership. Kent Smith, an administrator from another historically black school in Ohio, was hired as Langston's president in 2012. Unlike some of its counterparts in other states, Langston is a public university. Annual state appropriations provide a somewhat stable source of funding.
From the student perspective, Langston is a financial bargain. The school increased tuition and fees 9 percent this year for full-time, in-state students, making it the largest percentage of tuition and fee increase among the state's public colleges and universities. Still, Langston is less expensive than any of Oklahoma's other regional universities for full-time resident students doing their undergraduate or graduate studies.
Langston officials told The Oklahoman's Silas Allen that they are more aggressively recruiting students on the West Coast. They've also begun advertising via an online music outlet. Clearly, the school must continue its proactive approach to keep the enrollment trend on an upswing. It also must work on retaining students and improving graduation rates.
Both are issues not unique to historically black schools, which often serve first-generation college students, many from economically unstable backgrounds. In fact, Duncan said a new college rating system expected to debut as soon as 2015 will take into account those challenges.
Competition in the higher ed sector is fierce. Experts have noted an increasing number of black students are eschewing HBCUs for other higher education options. The onus falls to Langston and its peers to offer high-quality programs and experiences students will choose. In Langston's case, we hope it can do just that.