Yes, we're open," the phone message at Morris Brown College greets callers. You'd barely know it, walking around the Atlanta campus of this 122-year-old institution. The gym is dark. The fraternities have all disbanded. The band, whose fiery dance routines inspired last year's movie "Drumline," is silent. "It's like a ghost town," says sophomore Frederick Williams, 20, one of only 100 students left at the school from 2,200 a year ago. And now the school is $27 million in the hole.
It wasn't long ago that the nation's 105 historically black colleges were thriving, thanks in part to their visibility on "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World." But in the sagging economy, many smaller schools like Morris Brown and Clark Atlanta University are ailing, as donations have dwindled and students and graduates have defaulted on their loans. Worse, private black colleges operate with almost no safety net: their total endowment is $1.6 billion; Harvard's alone is $17 billion.
At Morris Brown, student debts and administrative problems cost the school its accreditation in April, along with the federal aid that accounts for 70 percent of its annual income. Enrollment plummeted, and the teaching staff has been slashed to 21 from 108. A new management team has been working with creditors, and the school has sent letters to some 500 students, ordering them to pay up or face being reported to the IRS.
While big-name black colleges have managed to remain in financial health thanks in part to celebrity donations from the likes of Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, many smaller schools haven't shared in the bounty. Dallas radio host Tom Joyner is trying to fill the gap. A graduate of Tuskegee University, Joyner begins his syndicated broadcast each morning with a plea to donate to black colleges. Since 1998, the Tom Joyner Foundation has handed out a total of $17 million. This month the foundation gave Morris Brown a $1 million check. "A good deal of my listeners probably didn't go to college, but they responded," Joyner says. "We get checks for $5, $10 and $20."
Cosby says black alumni have to shoulder some of the blame for the current state of affairs. "Many of them are doing well enough to give something," he says. He also thinks the health of black colleges doesn't depend just on African-Americans. "These schools help everyone. They are America's treasures, not just black people's." And a school is a terrible thing to waste.