After a $5.2 billion injection in federal funds for COVID relief efforts and a slew of mind-boggling donations from the likes of Mackenzie Scott, HBCUs emerged from the pandemic as a Cinderella story of sorts: enrollment boomed, retention increased and their cultural relevance exploded.
“Social media is talking about all the celebrities sending their students to HBCUs. We’ve always produced the greatest and the best, but for whatever reason it’s gotten a lot more attention recently,” says Danisha Williams, director of admissions at Lincoln University of Missouri. “You got Chris Pual repping HBCU jerseys when he’s warming up for games.”
As fortunate as these institutions have been to receive handsome endowments from public figures and witness a growth of young, proud Black men and women embracing the HBCU experience, approaching these gifts from a financial point of view may lend you to consider whether the well is bound to dry.
“We don’t know the pace at which they will continue. It’s important to be cognizant of what you’re planning to do long-term with those dollars as well as always minding where your enrollment falls, which directly translates to tuition revenue,” says La Shaun King, an assurance partner at BDO who works with higher ed clients. “The amount of revenue you have at your disposal speaks to what you’re able to do.”
Moreover, CARES Act funds will also be unavailable to spend by the end of the school year—June 30, 2023—according to the Department of Education.
Anthony Jones, vice president of enrollment management and student experience at Bethune-Cookman University, is also confronting this reality.
“We want to grow in a way that speaks to the longevity of the institution and not just an immediate shot in the arm,” says Jones. “We want to make sure that we understand what portion of our enrollment is coming from the overall uptick in HBCU enrollment and what portion of our enrollment growth is coming from our own efforts in terms of how we are managing admissions, marketing, retention efforts, and so forth.”
Here are four initiatives Lincoln and Bethune-Cookman are taking to ensure their HBCUs can turn their unexpected spark into a sustained legacy.
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Develop competitive programs with high ROI
Jones views the function of Bethune-Cookman with a pragmatic lens. “How well does our degree serve you once you leave the institution?” he asks.
Parents and students are now asking for—and expecting—a return on their college degree more than ever, according to Jones. Thanks to a 34% increase in net tuition revenue, Bethune-Cookman can now invest in expanding academic offerings that match market demand.
King also believes academic programs at HBCUs can become more attractive by leveraging corporate partnerships to develop internship, networking and training opportunities that offer career-focused students relevant training and hirable workforce skills.
For example, NASCAR recently tapped Bethune-Cookman for an internship program that allows participants to develop a marketing activation while managing a set budget provided by NASCAR. Additionally, Alabama A&M University’s partnership with Google landed one of its students a full-time position on their software development side.
Schools with a successful track record with corporate partnership, King wages, can be leveraged by enrollment offices to recruit strong high school prospects. It can also drum up more donor support because it appeals to a school’s accomplishments rather than just its cultural importance.
Boost student outreach
Williams noted how an increased marketing budget allowed Lincoln to develop virtual recruitment affairs to let prospective students know of their accomplishments, which in turn has elevated Lincoln’s student outreach and enrollment efforts.
The Missouri-based university has also hired five remote recruiters across Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis to boost the school’s visibility for prospective students not readily in the vicinity. She believes the initiative has expanded the school’s reach five times more than their former in-house formula.
Maximize the student experience
Following Bethune-Cookman’s best freshman recruitment class in more than 10 years, the school needs to figure out how it can ensure over 1,000 new students find a comfortable home. “One thing the university needs to be smart in doing is continuing to invest in the infrastructure that’s necessary to house and accommodate the growth that we have,” says Jones. So far, Bethune-Cookman has renovated several floors of its primary residence hall.
They are also looking to increase staffing levels to provide deeper support services to students. Financial services, admissions and academic counseling are all seeing a more robust base of individuals dedicated to helping students. However, Williams at Lincoln noted that turnover remains a pertinent issue. She says she is working diligently to keep staff in place by maintaining daily rapport and words of affirmation.
Homecoming, a staple experience at HBCUs, also experienced a boost in funding. Nationally renowned rapper Rick Ross performed at “The Greatest Tailgate of All Time’’ party at Bethune-Cookman last fall.
Tackle mental health
From approaching student life to rethinking how it delivers school pedagogy, Bethune-Cookman is staring at a phenomenon that affects every single one of its students from its freshman to its seniors, largely contributed to the pandemic.
“Dollars and attention shifted towards ensuring that can be met and we want to get better at it,” Jones says. “We’re certainly not perfect, but we have a goal to get as good as possible in that particular area to really help our students and their families work through what has been a very difficult and very challenging time for all of us.”
Bethune-Cookman still largely relies on its in-house counseling service by ensuring it’s well staffed.
One strong signature of the HBCU experience may provide these students a certain reprieve from the mental health difficulty experienced across the country. Specifically, they benefit from a well-known family atmosphere.
“Students and staff feel supported, they have someone they can talk to. We are that family environment that our students are looking for and can depend on. They can go to class, but what happens after class? If there’s no one there to take you to McDonald’s or Walmart, that can be a lot for an 18- or 19-year-old.”