The St. Augutine’s University Choir sings at a chapel service. • Courtesy of St. Augustine’s University

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Summer might look like a quiet season at the two historically black colleges of the Episcopal Church, but the hard work of educating disadvantaged young adults cannot be put on hold, especially this year.

Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, and St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh have been racing since last winter to show accreditors, prospective students, and donors that they have the financial stability to match their lofty missions.

Both schools have weathered the fiscal storms that rocked America’s 105 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the wake of the Great Recession. Now they’re gearing up to demonstrate proof of progress, relevancy of mission, and readiness to thrive. Among the key ingredients: closer ties to an Episcopal Church that has made racial justice and reconciliation a top priority of the current triennium.

“Do we have financial issues? Dadgone right,” said Voorhees College President Cleveland Sellers, Jr. “Do we take them seriously? Dadgone right. Do we want somebody to come in and bail us out? No, we don’t. Do we want some assistance in bailing ourselves out? Yes, we do.”

Since the 19th century, St. Augustine’s and Voorhees have served African-Americans who had few other options for higher education. Balancing budgets has never been easy for these private schools with a low-income niche, but the mission has endured and borne generations of fruit with help from the church.

Each school receives $274,000 annually from the Episcopal Church. That’s between 1 and 2 percent of each school’s total revenues. Both may also apply for church grants to support creativity in education, but the relationship goes beyond funding. In June, Executive Council also authorized senior national church staff to help the schools strengthen their fundraising, student recruitment, and strategic planning.

The schools are taking new steps to bless the church as well. This year, St. Augustine’s launched a new scholarship program through which all Episcopal students receive a 50 percent tuition discount worth about $8,500 per year. St. Augustine’s has seen Episcopal applications surge this year as a result. College placement offices at Episcopal high schools are making it known to their students.

Voorhees sends its renowned concert gospel choir to perform as widely as possible, including at parishes that support the college. But the choir’s evangelism and witness are limited by funds. Any trip that would require a hotel is beyond the budget. Voorhees is seeking individuals, parishes, and dioceses to underwrite particular initiatives such as a traveling choir, a scholarship, or a much-needed upgrade to athletic facilities, to name a few of the giving opportunities.

Today’s church-college partnerships aim to keep crucial doors open during “what appears to be a crisis of funding,” according to Anita George, a member of Executive Council’s HBCU Task Group. At stake is the schools’ all-important standing as accredited institutions.

Accreditation is essential for qualifying for federal funds, including the government’s financial aid programs, which are the lifeblood of education funding for students at HBCUs. If accreditation goes away, students disappear, too, because they cannot obtain money for college. A cautionary example comes from the defunct St. Paul’s College, an Episcopal HBCU that closed in 2013 soon after it lost accreditation.

“You can lose accreditation easily,” said retired historian Bobby Lovett, author of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Narrative History, 1837-2009. “You have to have adequate facilities, and facilities at some HBCUs are falling apart. You have to have adequate equipment. You can’t offer engineering or science if you don’t have proper laboratories, and to put in laboratories costs millions of dollars. You have to have benefits for your faculty, supports for your students in living spaces. And all of that is just money.”

Neither Voorhees nor St. Augustine’s faces any risk of closing, according to their respective presidents, but they are confronting challenges. Accreditors placed St. Augustine’s in warning status last December for failure to demonstrate compliance with financial stability standards. Though Voorhees has always enjoyed good standing with accreditors, the school this year needed to pursue $600,000 in donations from vendors, graduates, staff, and others in order to end the fiscal year with a surplus ahead of its 2017 review, Sellers said.

Outside factors dealt all HBCUs a tough hand in the early 2010s, and many are still trying to recover. Tighter lending criteria in the federal Parent PLUS Loan program caused enrollments to fall, in some cases sharply, as loan officers denied applications and touched off a sudden wave of dropouts. For tuition-driven schools like St. Augustine’s and Voorhees, slumping enrollments took a hefty toll on budgets and made deep cuts imperative.

“When the enrollment dropped, it certainly had a financial impact to the university,” said St. Augustine’s President Everett Ward. “We have made major cuts to our budget. We developed a budgetary process that keeps us in line with the true picture of the university. So we have an operating budget, based on our number of full-time equivalent students, that is very realistic.”

Voorhees reduced faculty and staff levels by 50 percent, from 200 to 100. Gone are about half of the courses offered previously, especially those that were attracting only a few students. New, grant-eligible academic programs such as emergency management have meanwhile taken root.

St. Augustine’s made similar moves, slashing $6 million from the budget to close deficits, selling three residential properties, and putting a golf course up for sale. Academic programs are now streamlined into four areas: public health, communications, criminal justice, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The school is looking forward to larger enrollments this year, Ward said.

“We are now beginning to see, hopefully, an upward trend,” he said.

Promising signs at Voorhees and St. Augustine’s helped convince Joel Cunningham, vice chancellor emeritus at the University of the South, to make what he calls “substantial contributions” to both schools.

“The church values these institutions because they are a window for the church into the African-American community,” said Cunningham, who serves on Executive Council’s HBCU Task Group. “They’re also windows for members of the African-American community into the church — windows or, we hope, doors. They provide ways for people who would not otherwise have experience with the church to gain it.”

At inception, both schools sought to affirm the inherent dignity of African-Americans and create opportunities for them in Southern states where the legacy of slavery cast a long shadow. At one time, they were two of four Episcopal HBCUs (Okolona College in Mississippi shut down in 1964). Now that St. Paul’s has also closed, the sole two surviving Episcopal HBCUs are keen to remember their histories and why they exist. They educate more than African-Americans; both have students of other racial backgrounds as well. Bringing a special kind of support to the task is what makes them distinct.

St. Augustine’s launched after the Civil War in 1867 as an outreach ministry for newly freed slaves. It fast became a hotbed for training black Episcopal priests. Women were admitted to St. Augustine’s from day one. In 1897, the school established St. Agnes Hospital, which cared for local residents for more than 60 years in a period of Jim Crow segregation when other local hospitals were not accessible to them.

Despite cost-cutting pressures, St. Augustine’s has recently been building up its religious studies program by adding courses and allowing anyone from the wider community to enroll in individual classes. It’s part of a vision to restore St. Augustine’s role as a training ground for church leaders as it approaches its 150th anniversary next year.

“If we can return to that period in history when St. Augustine’s was one of the primary universities that helped send students on to seminary and then on to become Episcopal priests, then that fits with our core mission here at the university,” Ward said.

Voorhees’ predecessor institution, Denmark Industrial School, began a generation after St. Augustine’s in 1897, but not without a struggle. Twice construction materials went up in arsonist flames as foes tried to stop Elizabeth Evelyn Wright from founding what would be the first high school for blacks in a poverty-stricken region still known today as South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame.”

But Wright pressed on, supported by Northern philanthropists like Ralph Voorhees, who paid for the land and built the first building. In 1924, the school began receiving support from the Episcopal Church. Financial assistance came from far and wide as the institution evolved into a junior college and then a four-year college. The Diocese of Massachusetts, for instance, financed two major buildings and an auditorium.

“Had not it been for them, we probably wouldn’t be in existence today,” Sellers said. “They were able to reach out and do that kind of thing, and it made a difference to a lot of students.”

Voorhees’ mission still involves educating the disadvantaged, but the need is subtler today. Like St. Augustine’s, Voorhees draws students who do not receive athletic, music, or academic scholarships at higher-profile schools. State schools or community colleges might be less expensive to attend in some cases, but some students cannot imagine being on a big crowded campus. Some might need remedial academic training or personal guidance after high school. Administrators say these students receive the nurture, kind touch, and Christian community they seek at Voorhees.

“Voorhees College is a smaller institution, and it caters to those students who might not survive in that large state-school environment,” said Sonia King Gass, vice president for institutional advancement and development at Voorhees. “Some of our students need just a little bit more to help them succeed. … For instance, ours is a Christian environment. At a state institution, you don’t have chapel every Tuesday. At Voorhees College, you do.”

Take Darius Snow. Born in Atlanta, he was abandoned around age 2 and came of age in a tough neighborhood where narcotics were prevalent, Sellers said. He developed a stutter and sought a safe, supportive environment for postsecondary education. Voorhees accepted him and got to work.

Snow’s advisers believed he could overcome his stutter with enough love, encouragement, and work with a speech specialist. They gave him a challenge: to lead announcements at the all-school chapel service. With time and practice, his speech grew smoother.

“At his graduation, he was one of the students who delivered a speech,” Sellers said. “The world was wide open to him.”

Snow made his mentors proud by entering graduate school in Alabama. But Voorhees graduates do not have to become high-powered professionals or scholars in order to be celebrated. Sellers emphasizes that some graduates opt to raise families or make their mark simply by being good citizens and people of faith. Many come from modest means; some cannot even afford 75 cents for laundry, he said. Others have had to drop out to support families back home.

But those who piece together enough loans and scholarships to stay for four years are taught to succeed, Sellers said. They learn to have hope, to trust God, to serve their less fortunate neighbors, and become the best they can be.

“It’s no easy task to educate poor people,” George told Executive Council in June. “I would add: but we must.”

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