Recession hits black colleges hard

Sun Feb 15, 2009 9:28pm EST
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By Matthew Bigg

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Black colleges in the United States are reeling from the impact of a recession that has hit their funding and are struggling to retain poor and middle income students.

The big government economic stimulus package President Barack Obama is expected to sign on Tuesday could provide some relief in a downturn that is hurting dozens of small, private universities set up for African Americans that lack big endowments and rely on tuition fees.

The colleges are a legacy of a past era when black students were barred from white-dominated higher education. Although the country now has its first black president in Obama, these institutions still play a valuable role, educators and politicians say.

Many U.S. universities have been affected by the recession, which has eroded state and private funding for education. But a majority of students at black colleges come from low- or middle-income families, making them and their schools more vulnerable to the economic squeeze.

As it bites, students struggle to get loans and scholarships, and the colleges struggle to pay bills.

"All the trends are bad right now," said Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, which raises money for 39 of the 103 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States.

In a dramatic example, Clark Atlanta University laid off 70 of its 229 full-time faculty members and consolidated classes in its arts and science school last week when 300 students out of an enrollment of about 4,000 failed to return for the spring semester because of cost.

"Ninety-eight percent of our students require financial aid. As that became less accessible, increasingly our students have found they were unable to return," said spokeswoman Jennifer Jiles.   Continued...

<p>Freshman students Laurah Pollonais and Dalicia Barker listen during a class at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in this picture taken February 12, 2009. REUTERS/Tami Chappell</p>