Maria Lumpkin was drawn to St. Augustine's University years ago. She remembers driving into campus for the first time and seeing the historic stone chapel, quarried and built in 1895 by students who were just one generation free from slavery.
“I fell in love with the campus, and I fell in love with the spirit of the people that were there,” Lumpkin said.
Lumpkin moved to Raleigh in the early ‘90s to attend the historically black college. Now she fosters that spirit of community, as her alma mater's newest president. She looks forward to seeing her students again this fall.
“I can't hug them, but I can do some elbow knocks with them,” Lumpkin said with a smile.
St. Augustine's University promoted Lumpkin from COO to president in March, just as the gravity of the pandemic was taking hold.
“These past few months have presented lots of challenges, unlike any we've seen,” Lumpkin said.
The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the financial future of many universities, and historically black colleges and universities are among the most vulnerable. Congress has responded with a significant funding package specifically for HBCUs, with more on the line as the Senate considers its next round of aid.
The Stakes Are High As HBCUs Weather The Pandemic
Lodriguez Murray is a lobbyist with the United Negro College Fund, an organization that represents private HBCUs, including St. Augustine's. He jumped into emergency mode on March 12.
“The president of one of our colleges called me at nine o'clock that evening, and said that if they don't get help, because of the conditions of this pandemic, that college expects to be in the hole between $2 million to $4 million this year,” Murray said.
Murray wasn’t willing to share which college reached out, but as a group, HBCUs are up against numerous financial challenges.
Historically black colleges have been historically underfunded. Generations of wealth inequality for black Americans have left HBCUs with smaller endowments. They serve a high percentage of low-income students, and the private colleges especially depend on enrollment for tuition revenue.
For some HBCUs, the costs of the pandemic could threaten their survival.
“We've been through the Great Depression. We've been through Jim Crow and segregation,” Murray said. “The institutions have no desire to fold.”
Three HBCUs have closed since the last recession, and Murray said he has “no appetite” to see that happen again. Others, including St Augustine’s University and Bennett College in North Carolina, have recently risked losing their accreditation due to poor finances.
With those stakes in mind, Murray joined forces with North Carolina Congresswoman Alma Adams to lobby for federal aid for HBCUs.
CARES Act Allocates Unprecedented Aid for HBCUs
“One of the things that I pledged to do when I came to Congress was to continue to support the schools that supported me,” Adams said, herself a first generation graduate of North Carolina A&T State University and a former faculty member at Bennett College.
North Carolina’s HBCUs graduate more students than those of any other state, and Adams counts these students among her constituents.
She and others pushed Congress to help HBCUs through the coronavirus pandemic. Congress responded with nearly $1.4 billion in the CARES Act set aside for HBCUs and other historically minority serving institutions.
Adams says she will continue to call for more funding, and she’s optimistic about what may come from the Senate’s next aid package under negotiation in the coming weeks. However, she's still concerned for small, private HBCUs.
“I still worry,” Adams said. “Because this certainly has been a big boost for our schools, but it's not all that they need.”
And yet, this recent level of aid for HBCUs is unprecedented.
“We have a history of getting targeted resources to the schools — never this big and never this fast,” Murray said.
“This is huge for us,” said St. Augustine’s President Maria Lumpkin.
The CARES Act assistance to St. Augustine's was more than doubled, thanks to the additional aid for HBCUs.
“Without that funding, we would certainly not have the resources to be able to support the shift,” Lumpkin said.
Funding for HBCUs More Flexible Than Other Emergency Aid
Half of the CARES Act funding given to all universities was required to go directly back to students, in the form of checks ranging up to about $1,000, based on a student’s financial need. Many universities spent much of the other half of their aid to reimburse residential students for unused room and board fees.
The additional funding universities receive for their designation as an HBCU is more flexible, and in many cases greater, than what they received in general CARES Act aid to higher education.
St. Augustine’s will spend its portion on technology, cleaning and protective equipment. The costs add up.
“We just spent about $7,000 making sure that we have facemasks,” Lumpkin said.
The university held a fundraising campaign to put a laptop in the hands of every incoming student this fall. Much of the university’s additional funding will pay for technology, to prepare faculty to shift quickly to remote learning if the coronavirus forces a second wave of campus closings.
St. Augustine's University President Maria Lumpkin and Fayetteville State University Chancellor Peggy Valentine participated in this #DontRush Challenge video as a marketing tool. Enrollment will be key to their financial well-being this year.
These concerns apply to private and public HBCUs alike.
Fayetteville State University Interim Chancellor Peggy Valentine echoed concerns about the cost of bridging the digital divide. Valentine recalled a student who reached out for help because she was sharing one laptop with her four children, who were also in school.
“These are challenges that many of our students, especially African American students from low income communities, face on a daily basis — having to make do with limited resources,” Valentine said.
Valentine said if not for the additional aid for HBCUs, the university might have to dig into its operating expenses and potentially lay off faculty and staff.
“That has a snowball effect upon our communities that we're serving,” Valentine said, but she remains hopeful layoffs won’t be necessary.
“If we continue to receive the amount of appropriations from the state that we have in the past few years, then we will be okay,” Valentine said.
State taxes are projected to take a big hit this year, but the legislature has historically funded the UNC System at levels above other southern states.
Without that safety net from the state, private colleges will have a harder time.
President Lumpkin says, so far, fall enrollment looks strong for St. Augustine's University, but she doesn't know yet how much the pandemic will cost the university.
“I will say this, we will spend all the money that we have and more,” Lumpkin said.