$61M Helped HBCUs in Arkansas Survive COVID

$61M Helped HBCUs in Arkansas Survive COVID
O. Jerome Green, president of Shorter College in North Little Rock.

Three of the four historically Black colleges and universities in Arkansas that received nearly $61 million through the federal American Rescue Plan say the money has been critical to surviving the pandemic amid challenges unique to institutions like theirs.

The money came with restrictions that the federal government relaxed last month. The schools could see revised spending guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education in a few weeks.

The funding has already kept many HBCUs open, O. Jerome Green, president of Shorter College of North Little Rock, said. “It has been a lifeline for the colleges that have been involved and for the students. I don’t believe that the colleges would have been able to maintain enrollment levels sufficient to continue operation without these funds.

“If it had not been for the funding from the Rescue Plan, I really don’t know where we would be. But, because of that funding, we have been able to manage the pandemic and are prepared to emerge on the other side,” he said. Shorter, a two-year private college, received $13.02 million.

University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Chancellor Laurence Alexander said the money allowed HBCUs to not only survive but thrive in a post-pandemic environment. “When you look at, really, what we’ve been through in the pandemic and what our students and our faculty and everyone associated with the university has had to endure, … [the funding] has made all of this doable,” he said. “It has enabled us to continue on and to persevere in spite of the challenges we face.” UAPB, a public, four-year school, received $25.14 million.

Arkansas’ other HBCUs are Philander Smith College, which received $11.77 million, and Arkansas Baptist College, which received $10.78 million. Both four-year, private schools are in Little Rock.

Leaders at three of the Arkansas HBCUs that received funding outlined the challenges HBCUs typically face. A representative from Arkansas Baptist was not available for an interview before press time. HBCUs, they said, are often small and lack access to the economies of scale larger institutions have. Many have old facilities and outdated technology. And they’re underfunded, relying on tuition and fee revenue tied to enrollment.

“We don’t have large endowments that other institutions can rely on if something catastrophic happens,” said Green. He said most HBCU students depend on financial aid and don’t come from affluent families. Most HBCUs are “absolutely dependent” on enrollment, Green said.

Philander Smith has seen about a 20% decline in its enrollment since the onset of the pandemic, President Roderick Smothers Sr. said by email. The funding helped it recover revenue associated with the decline, he said.

Spending on Students

The funds were awarded when the American Rescue Plan was approved in March 2021, but the Department of Education announced the amounts each HBCU received through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grant program on March 7. The money must be spent by June 30, 2023.

On March 15, President Joe Biden signed into law the Fiscal Year 2022 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. The bill loosened restrictions on how all HBCUs could spend the $2.7 billion awarded.

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UAPB’s Alexander said his school is waiting on revised spending guidelines from the Department of Education, hoping it will allow the school to invest the money in infrastructure and capital expenditures, such as renovations, that would “improve the health and well-being of students and faculty and staff on the campus.” He sees such projects taking the form of an on-campus infirmary and mental health facility or program.

So far, the schools have been required to use half the money they received to provide direct financial relief to students.

Shorter College gave $1,000 cash bonuses to its students when they got vaccinated, offered grants to students to cover anything — like utility payments — that would keep them from going to school, and provided incentives to students for completing a semester, Green said. UAPB paid down student balances, provided scholarships and more.

The money has also been used on COVID-related expenses, like personal protective equipment, sanitizing and temperature checks. UAPB is looking at using it to upgrade its HVAC system and classroom technology, Alexander said.

He also said advocacy by organizations and associations that represent HBCUs as well as HBCUs themselves helped make the funding happen. Philander Smith, for example, worked with the United Negro College Fund, its alumni and constituents to write letters to, visit, call and engage the feds.

“When other institutions get the equivalent of a cold, HBCUs often get the equivalent of the flu while operating with already limited resources,” Smothers with Philander Smith said, adding that, while the schools and students have been resiliant, the federal funds “have come right on time.”