After being the only option for black students for decades, some historically black colleges and universities are struggling. Falling enrollment numbers and dwindling resources are challenging schools that want educate a diverse student body. In WFSU's series on Florida's HBCUs, here's a look at the status of Edward Waters College, the state’s oldest historically black college.
The story of Edward Waters College is the story of HBCUs across the country. It was founded in 1866 to educate former slaves, some learning to read for the very first time, others working towards advanced degrees.
Today Edward Waters is known for its athletics, and its school band, The Triple Threat Marching Band. It’s also known for its affiliation with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and for the schools’ renowned concert choir.
Over the years, its seen struggles, lagging enrollment numbers, and allegations of a botched accreditation process. But much of Edward Waters’ mission remains the same – educate those who don’t have many other choices. College President Nathaniel Glover is a 1966 graduate of the school. And he ultimately become Florida’s first black sheriff since Reconstruction. The enforcer-turned-educator sees his job as saving lives.
“It was almost like vindication, being able to come back as a president of a college, after having made a career of arresting young people. It is the epitome of redemption, I think,” Glover said.
Glover saw his share of struggles too. He nearly dropped out of high school. And when he did make it to college, he had to work side jobs, including cleaning the bathroom outside of the president’s office, now his office. He wants to be a straight-talking, and realistic, role model for today’s students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college.
“We’re better off being here than not being here, because some of these students would never see the light of day if they didn’t have Edward Waters College. And you know what? I am one of those students,” Glover said.
And each year, each freshman makes a pledge in front of the student body, faculty and staff. And then one by one, they shake hands with the president. And one by one, he asks them if they’ll make it to graduation day.
“And I just love this time of year, because I get an opportunity to see you and look you in the eye. And those of you who dropped your eyes when you got to me, I made you look me in the eye and promise me,” Glover told students at a recent commencement ceremony.
But not all will graduate. In fact, the vast majority won’t. In 2015, 20% of students graduated in six years. And that’s an improvement since 2009, when 12% graduated. It’s not because they can’t keep up; 40% of students are on the honor roll. In part, it’s because Edward Waters’ mission is to open their doors to students who wouldn’t be able to go to college otherwise. Brian Bridges is with the United Negro College Fund.
“HBCU’s have a commitment to helping students from certain backgrounds, particularly low-income, first generation students. So as a result of that, they disproportionately enroll those students. Over 70% of HBCU students are Pell eligible, which means they come from the lowest income quartile of college students,” Bridges said.
89% of Edward Waters students are on Pell grants. And the school doesn’t require minimum SAT or ACT scores. It’s no mystery why wealthier students do better. Marybeth Gasman directs the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania.
“A lot times they’ll already gain credits, they’ll be acclimated to the environment, they’ll have a support system,” Gasman said. “Those are all the things kids from middle class families and affluent families already have going in. So to give those to low income kids is really important.”
While graduation rates are valuable, Brian Bridges says if you’re only looking at the number, you’re missing the point.
“Well we’ve said that at UNCF for years, that graduation rates don’t tell the full story,” Bridges said.
Bridges points to a 2015 Gallup poll that shows HBCU students are doing better on a number of levels, when compared to non-HBCU students.
“They started looking at their data and found that HBCU students, compared to non-HBCU alums reported being more satisfied in their careers, more engaged in their communities and reported having a more fulfilling experience as undergraduates,” he said.
And Bridges says those effects play out across the black community. That being said, Marybeth Gasman says the school has a duty to stand by its mission, while also graduating more students.
“Well that’s the thing. We need more schools that are willing to be open access and to be open to enrolling low-income students. I mean this is really, really important.” Gasman said.
Glover says the school is making progress. And he insists that any amount of college education will help.
“If we can get them any level of college education, then that’s going to minimize the chances of them ending up on the unemployment roll, it’s going to minimize the chances of them ending up in some social program, and it’s going to, in the long run, almost eliminate the chance of them going to our criminal justice system,” Glover said.
You can pay now or pay later, Glover says. He’s choosing now.
Correction: Marybeth Gasman directs the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. A previous version of this story affiliated her with Pennsylvania State University.