The struggles of students have translated into trouble for HBCUs themselves. About 40 percent have seen enrollment declines, and 20 schools saw enrollment fall more than 10 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to AP's analysis.
Financial struggles pushed Morehouse student Remy Sylvan to tap into his entrepreneurial side to finance part of his education. As the economy worsened, business suffered at his family's restaurant in Seattle, and his parents were unable to pay as much of his tuition as before, he said.
So Sylvan, who is set to graduate with a marketing degree, began doing independent software technician and coding work to make ends meet.
"It hurt the family at first because of the economic struggle, but it helped because it actually gave me the spirit to do something myself," Sylvan said. "You just got to find other intuitive ways to make ends meet. And I think that's what America overall is going through right now."
Marybeth Gasman, a leading historian of HBCUs at the University of Pennsylvania, said HBCUs typically have small endowments so they can't offer students the aid they need during tough times.
"It's been difficult but I do think that HBCUs tend to be fairly resilient," she said. "They tend to be creative about how to do things they know how to do on a small budget."
Gasman said retention rates are rising for all students, including non-traditional ones.
"You can't hold them to the same standard to institutions that are not willing to take any of those risks," she said. "There are lots of things to be optimistic about. If you look at individual HBCUs, there are a lot of people doing really good things."
Obama spoke to graduates of historically black Hampton University in 2010. One of Obama's connections to Morehouse is its current president, John Silvanus Wilson, who previously served under the president as executive director of a program designed to help HBCUs. Wilson, himself a Morehouse graduate, took the helm at the school earlier this year.
Kimbrough said funding increases in Obama's first-term had been helpful, but the most important thing was heading off cuts to the Pell Grant program. Funding rose substantially in Obama's first term but has been flat recently.
"We'd just like to see a little more forcefulness to make sure our students are protected," he said.
Pope is AP's education writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Associated Press writer Phillip Lucas in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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