The death of Saint Paul’s College

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JOHNNY C. TAYLOR, PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE THURGOOD MARSHALL COLLEGE FUND

 

by Freddie Allen

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Saint Paul’s College, a historically Black college founded in 1888 in partnership with the Episcopal Church, announced last week that it’s shutting down and working to help current students transfer to other institutions.

The school, located in Lawrenceville, Va., announced that it was closing after a deal that would have allowed Saint Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C. to acquire the struggling college collapsed under the weight of Saint Paul’s debt.

Already mired in debt, Saint Paul’s College terminated its sports programs in 2011 to cut costs. When the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, a regional group that certifies degree-granting institutions, rescinded the schools accreditation last summer, administrators went to court to get it back.

Now, both the accreditation and the school are gone.

In a press release, Oliver Spencer, chairman of Saint Paul’s College Board of Trustees, wrote: “The time deadlines associated with our accreditation issues with SACSCOC and the termination of the proposed merger require our Board to take this action in the best interests of our students.”

According to news reports, approximately 200 students were enrolled at the school; 51 students graduated from in the spring.

A number of small HBCUs, many of them affiliated with religious organizations, are also at the risk of closing. For example, Morris Brown College in Atlanta, founded in 1881 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), was saddled with $30 million in debt, filed for bankruptcy to avoid closing. It lost it accreditation in 2002 and recently rejected a $10 million proposal from the mayor to purchase the campus.

“When you don’t have a large endowment, you’re dependent on tuition,” said George Cooper, former president of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. “The trend in enrollment for a number HBCUs is on the decline, because families just don’t have enough resources to send their sons and daughters to school.”

Black families are reeling from the Great Recession that stripped half of their wealth and an unemployment rate that nearly double the jobless rate for Whites.

“The economic crisis that we see today impacts all universities,” said Cooper. “If you don’t get the students, you really don’t maintain the enrollment base necessary to pay the cost associated with running a university.”

Recent changes to the Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students programs made it even harder for parents with weak credit histories to qualify for the loan. Students who attend historically Black colleges and universities rely on the loans at a higher rate than other groups.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said those changes coupled with anemic alumni support likely crippled St. Paul’s, but that a number of factors likely contributed to its demise.

“It’s a very sad day when any historic institution has to close its doors when we know that there is significant need for higher education in the African American community,” said Taylor.

The lack of alumni support and feeble endowments often stifle the growth of HBCUs when enrollment dips. The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), a non-profit group that advocates for HBCUs, estimated that Black colleges have average endowments that are about one-eighth the size of average endowments at White schools.

Even alumni and private support at top-tiered HBCUs falls woefully behind the support at top White schools. The combined market value of endowments at Howard University in Washington, D.C. ($460.7 million), Spelman College, in Atlanta, Ga. ($309.1 million) and Hampton University, Hampton, Va. ($232.5 million) were still about $29.4 billion less than the endowment of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

“Unfortunately, in our community the only thing that we’re strongly socialized to give to is the church,” said Taylor. “That’s the biggest part of the problem.”

Taylor fears that it will take more closings of more HBCUs before the Black community wakes up and reacts to the crisis.

“It’s not going to happen until our community starts seeing a trend of HBCUs closing and no one is running to save them,” said Taylor. “Ultimately, the school and its alums have the responsibility to make sure that their [alma mater] continues to grant degrees.”

In the press statement about the closing, Spencer said that the board is “exploring all options” to keep the school open and to continue the school’s historical mission.

Spencer continued: “In pursuit of that goal I call on all members of the Saint Paul’s community to come together to guide and support the College in the next phase of its life in service to the many thousands of students deserving of the very special educational opportunities that Saint Paul’s College can offer.”

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