Monday, February 3, 2014

Change or die - part 1


St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, VA, has closed. Unfamiliar with St. Paul's College? I'm not surprised. St. Paul's was a small, historically black, college affiliated with The Episcopal Church (TEC). It closed in the autumn of 2013, having experienced an apparently irreversible decline in enrollment and lacking the endowment funds to continue operations.

On one hand, St. Paul's demise causes me considerable unease for three reasons. First, if integration has succeeded, then why do so few non-African-Americans attend historically black schools? This is not a marketing problem on the part of a few of these schools, but a pervasive pattern even among top-flight schools such as Morehouse College and Howard University. True integration would result in a flow of non-black students to historically black schools and black students to historically white schools.

Second, as an Episcopalian, I am uneasy about the denomination not having taken more assertive and public steps to aid St. Paul's College. Denominational affiliation differs markedly from the duties inherent in ownership. TEC has also its own fiscal issues. Additionally, the other two historically black schools affiliated with TEC both have their own struggles. However, if TEC prizes these affiliated institutions – and it should, given the denomination's emphases on diversity and tradition – then what steps might TEC pro-actively take to aid St. Augustine University in Raleigh and Voorhees College in Denmark, SC? Should affiliation connote more than prayers, bishops serving on trustee boards, and the presence of an Episcopal chaplaincy? If so, what should the more be?

Third, although the great recession accelerated the demise of St. Paul's College, a decisive factor, according to Benjamin Todd Jealous, was the 2011 federal Department of Education tightening the standards for loans to parents of college students. Following the change, loans to parents of students at historically black schools dropped by 36% and revenue to the schools by almost $150 million. For a school like St. Paul's College, that change may have been the tipping point that led to its closure. An amazing 42% of students at historically black schools come from families with incomes less than $25,000. (St. Paul's College and the Future of HBCUs, Huffington Post, September 20, 2013) The ability to repay a loan is an appropriate loan approval criterion. What is wrong with a society that advocates equal opportunity and self-reliance yet does not provide full scholarships to qualified students who have no personal or family wealth and whose parents earn less than $25,000 annually? Investing in young adults who badly want an education is certainly a winning proposition for the nation (and the denomination! – perhaps funding scholarships is one way for denominational affiliation to become more meaningful). Historically black colleges and university students comprise "just 3 percent of the nation's colleges and universities, but produce 50 percent of black public-school teachers, 80 percent of black judges, and 40 percent of baccalaureate degrees awarded to black students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM fields." (St. Paul's College and the Future of HBCUs, Huffington Post, September 20, 2013)

On the one hand, St. Paul's demise is at least partially attributable to progress in racial integration over the last half century. Tellingly, in 1971, St. Paul's Trustees voted to admit students and to hire teachers without regard to race. However, St. Paul's students and faculty remained predominantly African-American. A growing number of black students wonder if attending a historically black school will best prepare them for joining an increasingly integrated workforce.

More broadly, every human institution – just like every human – must change or die. Change, as I have previously discussed in Ethical Musings, is endemic, e.g., cf. Rethinking Advent. At least one of the St. Paul's College Trustees attributes the school shutting its doors to its failure to adapt to a changing environment with a new vision and purpose. Read more on this subject in my next post.

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