By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
The Rev. Al Sharpton faced about 300 people over breakfast at Norfolk State University and urged them to accelerate efforts to strengthen the school.
“The problem is not the times,” Sharpton told those attending the Founder’s Day Prayer Breakfast, which celebrated Norfolk State’s 80th anniversary. “The problem is the people in the times,” he added pointing to the funding disparity that exists between Norfolk State and other state-supported schools.
“You think you got a conservative legislature now; go back 80 years ago,” he continued. “In Virginia, we had in many areas – no rights that anyone would respect, and yet they carved this institution out.”
Consistently comparing the past to the future, Sharpton said, “This institution was necessary because it was the only way to give an opportunity to those that had none.”
Sharpton pinpointed some of the challenges many Historically Black Colleges and Universities now face. Black students are increasingly enrolling in majority schools like the University of Virginia or the College of William & Mary. Enrollment at HBCUs rose 4.5 percent between 2002 and 2012, the last year for which federal statistics are available.
While several reports show enrollment is steadily declining at HBCUs.
Experts say the drastic decline began in 2011, the year that the federal government limited the ability of students to use Pell Grants to a total of 12 semesters. Previously Pell covered up to 18 semesters of college.
The change is significant because HBCU students take longer on average to finish. And about 85 percent of HBCU students receive Pell Grants. Only about a third of all HBCU students graduate within six years and the federal government has also tightened eligibility for Parent PLUS loans, which HBCU students disproportionately use to pay for college.
Sharpton continued to point to the past and the future, in an effort to pinpoint solutions.
The obvious solution is to accelerate support, Sharpton said at the prayer breakfast. Deaccelerate discouragement.
“Times are challenging for historic Black colleges,” Sharpton said. “When were they not challenged?”
A woman said on Twitter after Sharpton delivered the keynote address at Norfolk State. “I took an hour and half of leave from work to see you speak and you spoke … my limbs may get weak, but I am strong … Your wisdom filled me up.”