WASHINGTON — Financially strapped historically black colleges across the country are at a crossroads.
Cutbacks in federal and state spending and competition from mainstream institutions for the best students, educators and academic programs have taken a toll on schools that were created to educate African-American students after slavery, said presidents from some of the nation's top historically black colleges on Thursday.
Now, critics are questioning the relevance of historically black colleges and universities, commonly known as HBCUs, in a post-segregation era, and some decry the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for them.
"I am often asked as the president of a historically black university whether HBCUs continue to be viable. The answer I give is a resounding yes," Mary Sias, president of Kentucky State University, told members of the House Education and Labor Committee. "HBCUs are and continue to be needed and are as vital now to the educational system in America as they have ever been.
"KSU and other HBCUs take the terror of poverty, hunger, fear and hopelessness and turn it into hope," she said. "With a little more money and capital we can do even more."
The Princeton Review listed KSU as a "Best Southeastern College"; U.S. News and World Report listed it as part of its "America's Best Colleges 2007."
Still, the school is facing a $3 million cut in state funding, and Sias said she's fighting an uphill battle when it comes to helping some of her school's non-terminal degree graduate programs become eligible for a federal competitive grant designed to help schools that serve large minority populations.
Historically black colleges represent only 4 percent of all higher-education institutions, but roughly 40 percent of all African-American students graduate from them, said Dorothy Yancy, the president of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C.
Fisk University, a school in Nashville, Tenn., with a student population of less than 1,000, graduates more black students who go on to earn doctorates in the natural sciences than any other school in the nation, according to a National Science Foundation study.
However, historically black colleges and universities face huge financial and social hurdles.
According to a study by Education Trust, 60 percent of the nation's students complete their undergraduate studies in six years. For an African-American student enrolled at a historically black college or university, where 70 percent of students are low income, the odds of completion are even lower, Sias said.
Over a lifetime, the average American with a bachelor's degree will earn roughly $2.1 million, while an African-American with the same degree will earn $1.7 million, the college presidents told the panel.
Over the past two decades, at least seven historically black colleges have lost their accreditation. While some schools were able to regain their accreditation status, others, such as Knoxville College and Morris Brown College, remain open without regional accreditation.
In fiscal 2005, 6 percent of the nation's top mainstream universities received more federal funds for research than 79 historically black colleges and universities combined, according to a report by the National Science Foundation.
"We've always been able to wash clothes without washing powder," Yancy said.