When Grambling State University's football team forfeited a game against Jackson State University last year, players thought they were locked in a singular battle with the administration. They presented administrators with a list of things they were fed up with, including a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to play against their competitors. Further, they complained about dilapidated and moldy athletic facilities and equipment, among other issues.
Turns out their complaints were emblematic of concerns at dozens of the nation's HBCUs, said Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which provides scholarships for students at the schools. The financial woes come as the federal government and states across the nation have trimmed their HBCU budgets in recent years, he said.
"Grambling is emblematic of a bigger problem," Taylor told The Root. "It's not limited to athletics. Dorms have fallen into serious disrepair. Classrooms are in need of updating, and academic programs have suffered. Some schools have had to reduce faculty and staff. To be blunt, it's the result of years and years of financial neglect. Some of these schools are in need of a major infusion of cash."
Now, in 2014, officials like Taylor are focusing on solutions, including turning a fresh eye toward alumni for donations, working with banks such as Wells Fargo to help students and staff obtain scholarships and pushing forward with the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, part of the administration's mission to make sure that America has the world's highest percentage of college graduates by 2020.
The push comes as the schools have seen federal and state funding diminish. Grambling State, for example, has seen its funding cut 56 percent, from about $31 million six years ago to about $13 million this academic year, Will Sutton, a spokesman for the university, told The Root. As a result, the cost of deferred maintenance projects has hit about $65 million, he said, and that amount does not include desired construction projects. To underscore the problem, he points out that the university has 590 acres, scores of buildings and one plumber.
But in the aftermath of the bad publicity from the football forfeiture, Audrey Gilbreath, a 1979 Grambling State University graduate, donated $10,000 to the university foundation to contribute to a mass-communications scholarship, Sutton said.
"That's huge for a school like ours," Sutton said. "Some schools may not get excited about a mass-communications scholarship, but we're grateful." Overall, however, alumni donations at Grambling are less than 2 percent, which is about average at most HBCUs, Sutton said.
"Most of these schools were founded to educate the families of slaves," he said. "And most of our relatives who had the opportunity to go to college did not have the opportunity to go to any college or university they wanted to until relatively recently. So when you start with people with limited economic status, it's not like you are coming from a family of means and wealth. You are starting at a place where people are getting used to the idea of being able to give. And a lot of our giving is at church."
To address the issue of alumni donations, Grambling gives its freshmen piggy banks and asks them to fill theirs with pocket change throughout their four years, Sutton said. When a bank is full, administrators ask students to take it to the development office, where it's put into an account with their name as part of their graduating-class gift to the university.
Indeed, Taylor said, alumni could do more to help HBCUs, which have an estimated 2 million living graduates. He points to St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va., which closed after 125 years in June 2013 after failing to raise an estimated $250,000 to remain open.
"It is shameful that you have an institution over 100 years old and have alumni who could not rally together and get $250,000 to save the institution," he said. "I blame us for that. That's absurd."
To assist schools with federal funding, President Barack Obama established the White House HBCU Initiative in 2010.
"The initiative is important," Executive Director George Cooper told The Root, "because President Obama wants the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Historically black colleges and universities will contribute to reaching this goal because they provide an educational opportunity for about 300,000 graduate and undergraduate students."
Over the last five years, Cooper said, all universities have seen about a 28 percent reduction in support from states. To help fill that gap, he said, Obama would like to see 5 percent of federal resources allocated to HBCUs.
"Our challenge is to work with federal agencies to identify their program priorities and then work with HBCU presidents to look at their goals to make a marriage so that we can create funding streams," he said.
Taylor applauded the White House HBCU Initiative, saying that its primary goal is to ensure that federal agencies are spending money with the HBCU institutions at a level that's comparable to what they spend at majority institutions.
"You can look at what various agencies spend at Johns Hopkins University, and then you have Morgan State and Bowie State [both HBCUs in Maryland] around the corner, and federal funding is not even close," Taylor said. "So that office has as one of its major responsibilities to go about and look for opportunities to support HBCUs."
Private companies such as Wells Fargo are already playing a role in building the schools' finances, said Georgette Dixon, who is senior vice president and director of national partnerships, government and community relations for the bank. She is a graduate of Tennessee State University, an HBCU in Nashville, where Oprah is also an alumna.
The bank has pledged to provide $3 million to the United Negro College Fund for scholarships over the next three years. Separately, the bank provided about $1.7 million for scholarships to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund over three years.
"We said, let's make a significant investment that lasts over a range of years or cycle of years so that we can see movement that the organization can really dive into meaningful programs and get some metrics on the back end," she told The Root. "The greatest benefit of these scholarship programs has been helping students to attend those colleges and universities. It's important for our youth, so its success is important to us."
(Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.)