The Washington Post
State’s HBCUS race to erect and fix buildings as enrollments set records
Pressure on aging infrastructures is rising with the student counts
BALTIMORE — One week before move-in, Neya Glover learned she wouldn’t be placed in a dormitory as expected.
The Morgan State University sophomore was one of 465 students who were housed at the Lord Baltimore Hotel last semester because there weren’t enough residence hall spots.
Living in the hotel meant Glover, a member of Morgan State’s second year of record enrollment, needed to take a 20-minute shuttle to and from campus. As a result, she didn’t join any clubs or participate in many on-campus activities.
But at least she had a place to live, with a bed, fridge and desk.
“I was just happy I got something,” Glover said.
Rising enrollment numbers at historically Black colleges and universities, known as HBCUS, across Maryland and the United States are putting pressure on aging infrastructure at institutions like Morgan State.
For decades, HBCUS have been underfunded compared with other colleges, leaving them with infrastructure that’s damaged, broken or unable to accommodate growth.
Now, Maryland’s historically Black institutions hope to capitalize on increased student demand by working through laundry lists of maintenance issues to make campuses comfortable and modern.
“It’s become even more critical,” Sidney H. Evans, Morgan State’s executive vice president for finance and administration, said of updating the campus, which spans more than 185 acres. “You do not want to miss this.”
While college enrollment overall has been on the decline nationwide, HBCU undergraduate enrollment grew 2.5 percent as of last fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that conducts student data reporting. Maryland HBCUS were no exception.
Still, at Morgan State, some classrooms can be too hot or cold, leading to distraction or classes being moved. Lab faucets at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore run with rust-ridden water, according to UMES President Heidi Anderson.
Such issues come partially as a result of historic underfunding at the state and federal levels for HBCUS. Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the
United Negro College Fund, said a prevailing assumption that HBCUS are “inferior” has led to, at best, an implicit bias that means officials do not fund the institutions at the same rate as other colleges.
Murray said the coronavirus pandemic paved the way for HBCUS to request and receive funding. But he noted that the money — over $5 billion during the pandemic — came with restrictions that prevent usage for “sorely needed” everyday operational funding.
“Something particularly special is happening on those campuses that cultivates the most underserved students to be achievers more than large, wellresourced, better-endowed institutions,” Murray said. “If they’re doing that with few resources, what could they do if they were well funded?”
Even when HBCUS do receive funding, facilities are usually the last to receive attention, Evans said. Money mainly goes toward scholarships, faculty salaries and programming, not infrastructure. For example, a recent settlement of $577 million — the result of a judge’s determination that the state of Maryland hurt its four HBCUS by letting historically White universities host similar degree programs in proximity — is designated for programming.
Furthermore, the state prohibits universities from using state money for residence halls, reasoning that universities profit from such buildings through room and board fees, said Kim Mccalla, Morgan State’s associate vice president of facilities, design and construction management.
Morgan State has received funding from the HBCU Capital Financing Program, run by the federal Education Department, which provides loans that can be used to refinance capital project loans, renovate existing facilities or build new ones. Morgan received approval for loans in 2018, 2020 and 2022, totaling about $160 million, for a variety of purposes, including renovating campus buildings, refinancing debt and building a new public safety center, according to the program’s website.
An Education Department spokesperson said in an email that the program acknowledges “all HBCUS have suffered from neglect, deferred maintenance and are in need of capital improvements.”
Evans said the status of Morgan State’s campus buildings is poor to fair, but improving. That assessment comes after the university spent roughly $1 billion in the past 12 years on new buildings and plans to spend a billion more.
At Maryland’s HBCUS, which also include Bowie State and Coppin State universities, infrastructure funds are spread across three main areas: deferred maintenance, additions and energy-saving projects.
Deferred maintenance, which refers to a backlog of repairs put off due to budget limitations, is what Evans calls “the cancer of higher education.” The evergrowing list ranges from replacing burst pipes and restoring the damage they caused to updating air quality systems.
Some of Maryland’s HBCUS are working to improve sustainability and reduce their carbon footprints, which involves updating antiquated structures. For example, Morgan State replaced the lighting in its football stadium with a more eco-friendly alternative to save on energy expenses.
UMES’ new pharmacy building and Morgan State’s Calvin and Tina Tyler Hall, the student services building, both have earned Gold LEED certifications.
New buildings, however, aren’t always a simple solution. UMES has land available for construction, but Morgan State does not. To build something new, Morgan has to either demolish buildings or acquire more land, a difficult feat in a historic city like Baltimore. Morgan State is in the process of acquiring the old Lake Clifton school campus in East Baltimore to convert it into a satellite campus. The project could take 20 years to complete.
Even students who do get residence hall rooms face issues with the age of the buildings. When Glover lived on Morgan State’s campus her first year, she had to buy mouse traps to fight an infestation.
When there isn’t enough space to house students, the universities rely on area partnerships. Anderson said that when the pandemic first hit and she needed solo rooms, the university worked with leasing offices to get students into apartments, though such agreements have since come to an end.
This year is not the first time Morgan State has faced student enrollment outpacing housing availability. In 2004, the university converted dorm lounge areas into bedrooms. In 2005 and 2006, students arrived on campus to discover they didn’t have housing. Some were placed in hotels, but others had to stay with upperclassmen and relatives or even sleep in their cars, the Baltimore Sun has reported.
Morgan State continues to house students at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, although the number of students staying there dropped this semester to 180.
The location came with its own set of issues for Glover. Due to miscommunication between school offices, Glover was told she was at risk of losing her room at the hotel at one point, she said. Glover also said the hotel offered no laundry facilities and had minimal security and food options.
“I feel completely LET DOWN by all of your departments and faculty,” Glover wrote Aug. 29 in an email to Morgan State President David Wilson. “I want to feel better about my HBCU, and that starts with the top administration hearing our concerns and working to fix them. I NEED IMPROVEMENT. WE NEED IMPROVEMENT.”
Wilson confirmed to the Sun that he received the email and met with Glover.
For the spring semester, Glover leased an apartment. She said she still likes the school and hands-on nature of Wilson. Glover said she enjoys her classes and where they’re housed, though she hasn’t really been inside the older classrooms.
“Morgan, they have a lot of work to do,” Glover said. “But they’ve come very far.”
Anderson said the students she meets with at UMES all say they want better, modern buildings, an issue that comes only second to food quality. She said she’s trying to deliver, but that involves finding the time and the money to do so.
“It makes for a balancing act for us,” she said.