What do struggling historically black colleges like SC State need to do to survive?

GWEN IFILL: It's that time of year when students, their families and friends celebrate graduation, then immediately turn to worrying about their futures.

Some colleges and universities are worrying too.

Graduating students at South Carolina State University walked into the school's stadium with all the usual pride and glee of commencement day. But mixed in with the pomp and the circumstance was a cloud of uncertainty about the future of South Carolina's only public historically black university.

The commencement speaker, Sen. Tim Scott, didn't hesitate to raise it.

SEN. TIM SCOTT, R-S.C.: Let me say first and foremost that, without any question, my prayers are with South Carolina State University for financial success.

GWEN IFILL: The school's mounting financial troubles include a nearly $23 million deficit and, since 2007, a 40 percent drop in enrollment. Only months ago, state legislators briefly proposed closing the Orangeburg school for two years to balance the books.

South Carolina State is one of about 100 historically black colleges and universities in the nation, and among those struggling to survive. In Pennsylvania, Cheyney University is facing its own multimillion-dollar deficit. And Washington, D.C.'s Howard University shed 200 staff members last year and announced 84 more layoffs this spring.

Many of the schools have shed students as well, and operate without the cushion of the endowments and alumni donations that elite, predominantly white schools rely on.

State lawmakers last week turned to the worlds of finance and academia for a new interim board of trustees for South Carolina State.

Gilda Cobb-Hunter has represented Orangeburg in the Statehouse for 24 years.

GILDA COBB-HUNTER, (D) State Representative: We needed someone to recognize the importance of check and balances, accountability, transparency. There was a real systemic problem at South Carolina State, a problem that has gone on for 25 or 30 years.

GWEN IFILL: Interim president W. Franklin Evans hopes confidence in new leadership could lead to more state funding.

But he conceded that is not the only solution.

W. FRANKLIN EVANS, Interim President, South Carolina State University: We're looking at right-sizing across the campus, even with our facilities, and making sure that we are maximizing the facilities' use in our building and optimizing every bit that we can, so that we're not wasting any money, wasting any resources.

GWEN IFILL: He's also looking to build on the school's strongest academic programs, like one in nuclear engineering.

Kenneth Lewis heads that program, the only one of its kind in South Carolina. He says it supports the kinds of students historically black universities have focused on.

KENNETH LEWIS, Dean, South Carolina State University: A lot of our kids are rural kids from small towns, rural towns in South Carolina, where they might not have calculus in high school, for example. We spend a lot of time with our kids developing them, encouraging them, and strengthening their background.

GWEN IFILL: Darian James graduated summa cum laude from the program this year. She is heading to the University of Wisconsin to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.

DARIAN JAMES, Nuclear Engineering Graduate: It taught me to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It pushed me. It challenged me. So going to any other school, I feel like I can make it.

GWEN IFILL: South Carolina State's new trustees met for the first time today.

How can these schools rise to the challenges facing higher education today?

For that, we turn to Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

Thank you for joining us.

We just heard the president of South Carolina State talk about optimizing and right-sizing and words which it sounds like it comes from how to fix a school. But how does South Carolina State do so poorly, when other schools do so well? What's the root problem?

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR., President, Thurgood Marshall College Fund: The root problem is about leadership.

And it's not just the staff leadership, but it's also governance, so the board leadership and the staff leadership. And, by the way, that happens to be the case at many of our institutions, not just HBCUs. But at its core, if we don't fix the problem — and it's a people problem — then we will continue to have — you can throw as much money as you want after institutions. If they have the wrong sort of governance and the wrong professional staff, then all of the dollars in the world won't solve the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Are HBCUs uniquely at risk?

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: Yes, yes, largely because we acknowledge — we acknowledge that we were first historically underfunded. Check. Have that.

But then we continue to live — I don't think we have had a real discussion about the appropriate new mission for HBCUS. What is their market? Who are they servicing?

GWEN IFILL: What is that? As you sit here and you set out on a mission to educate young black students, what should the mission be?

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: So, at its core, it is educating African-American students. I mean, that is the point of having a historically black college and university.

But we have got to identify majors and programs that are relevant to the market. You know, what are employers looking at hiring? If students are majoring in particular majors that are no longer relevant to the market, then they're not doing their jobs. These kids are incurring significant amounts of student debt to get a degree. And if you go out and then that degree doesn't pay off, then it fails.

And, therefore, the — there's no incentive for other students to come to the university.

GWEN IFILL: Has the education landscape in general shifted as well? We used to say in the black community that if somebody else caught a cold, we caught pneumonia.

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: That's right.

GWEN IFILL: Is that still the case as well for HBCUs, as the landscape changes?

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: Somewhat, but the entire — there's been such disruption in higher education generally.

You have majority institutions that are going out of business and struggling as well.


JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: You have a school like Sweet Briar down in Virginia that has just announced its last graduating class. They have a $100 million endowment.


JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: The business of higher education has changed so significantly, that this is not unique to HBCUs.

Now, to be fair, we're historically underfunded, and, therefore, to your point, the rest of the world gets a cold, we get pneumonia, because we have been historically underfunded. But that is just — that's not unique to the HBCU space.

GWEN IFILL: Has also — and we have done a lot of reporting on this program about online education.


GWEN IFILL: Has that also changed what the responsibilities, what the goals, what the structure should be for an underfunded university?

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: Everything has changed. There has been such disruption.

You think about it. Who would have thought 50 years ago that there would be a University of Phoenix, and all of the online for-profit education? And, by the way, many of the students now are attending reputable institutions with full online degrees.

So, yes, that has totally changed the game. I am on the board of an institution called the Cooper Union in New York, very well-known, highly selective institution, that this year for the first time ever had to start charging tuition.


GWEN IFILL: It used to have a reputation for everything being free.

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: That's right.

So, if that is happening at a school that has a $700 million endowment, then you can only imagine what happens at the HBCUs, where I think, in the aggregate, many of our institutions don't have a $700 million endowment.

GWEN IFILL: South Carolina State is a state university, a public university. Not all HBCUs are supported in that way by the government.


GWEN IFILL: But do many of them rely on government funding? Does that have an effect as well?

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: Significantly. About 80 percent to 90 percent of all funding at public or private HBCUs ultimately emanate from the federal government through Pell Grant, certain loan programs to build infrastructure, grant programs from the various federal agencies.

So, yes, all of the institutions, even private institutions, rely pretty heavily on federal and state funding.

GWEN IFILL: So, where does it work and where doesn't it work?

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: So, the schools that have figured it out, Claflin, it's a classic example.

Claflin University sits right next door to South Carolina State in Orangeburg. So, it's not a question of rural vs. city. It's not a question of black vs. majority. It's about leadership. At its core, our institutions have got to get the right boards of governors or boards of trustees, and those individuals have to select the right leaders, and those leaders have to execute their plan.

GWEN IFILL: What is the public interest in fixing HBCUs, and not just going and just letting — folding them into larger organization, mainstream organization?

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: That's right.

Well, here's the deal. Despite all that we hear about HBCUs, they represent just 3 percent of all higher educational institutions, but graduate 20 percent of all African-Americans with undergraduate degrees.

So, the point is what happens to America? Especially when the president's North Star goal is to increase the number of college graduates, if those institutions went away, then America has a problem, not just black America.

GWEN IFILL: Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, thank you very much.

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: Thank you.


PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundationand American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.