I sat inside a spacious conference room Wednesday listening to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talk about the epic challenges facing the nation’s 106 historically black colleges.

It’s a daunting task. Some black colleges are struggling just to keep the lights on.

With some black colleges potentially facing extinction in the near future, it’s unconscionable that Republicans want to slash funding to institutions that account for 1.5 percent of associate degrees; 17 percent of bachelor degrees; 7 percent of master’s degrees and 8 percent of doctoral degrees for African Americans.

Moreover, many black public school teachers in America – and black male teachers in particular – are graduates of historically black colleges, which Duncan correctly called “an important pipeline” for the nation’s school system. Without black colleges, Duncan said, the field of black teachers will shrink.

“We have a lot of hard work ahead of us,” Duncan told seven African American journalists who gathered for a breakfast briefing Wednesday specifically about HBCU’s. “We have a Congress that is very, very tough. Every time I go to Congress, I hear cut, cut…and cut back, and that’s the challenge we’re facing.”

“We’re at a fork in the road, a real crossroads,” Duncan said. “The question for our country is whether we view education as an investment or do we view it as an expense.”

There is no question that Republicans – and Congress — are tying Duncan’s hands. As Duncan talked passionately about trying to help black colleges survive, he is also keenly aware of the harsh political realities that make his job extremely difficult.

Duncan said congressional budget cuts have “caused real pain. Everywhere I go, I see the pain; I feel the pain.”

To make matters worse, the federal government faces a government shutdown on Oct. 1 when the government is slated to run out of money because of a budget fight between Democrats and Republicans over President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which takes effect Oct. 1.

How will a government shut down impact black colleges that are already facing severe financial hardships and struggling to survive?

“It’s infuriating to me,” Duncan said.

So here’s what the Obama administration says it’s doing to offer continued support for HBCU’s:

–       A 40 percent increase in federal funds from the Department of Education to HBCU’s since 2007. The support includes increased Pell Grant funding to help an additional 200,000 black students and $850 million in additional mandatory funding for HBCU’s.
–       The Obama administration’s funding for HBCU’s increased from $3 billion in 2007 to $4 billion in 2012.
–       Ongoing technical support for HBCU’s
–       Appointing Dr. George Cooper, Executive Director of the White House Initiative for HBCU’s.

“All 106 HBCU’s are in need,” Cooper said Wednesday when I asked him which black colleges need the most immediate help.

This is Cooper’s first week on the job and one of his challenges is changing the perception that the Obama administration hasn’t done enough for black colleges.

It’s no secret that presidents at black colleges are frustrated, anxious – and, frankly, angry at Obama. Some want to sue the administration to force the government to spend more money on HBCU’s.

Cooper talked about helping black colleges, but he also stressed the importance of accountability among black colleges, too. Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded Howard University’s credit rating, saying the university has lost too much of its patient revenue at its hospital.

And Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, the vice chair of Howard’s board of trustees, says if Howard doesn’t fix its financial problems immediately, the university could cease to exist in three years.

“I can no longer sit quietly, notwithstanding my personal preference to avoid confrontation, and therefore, I am compelled to step forward to announce that our beloved university is in genuine trouble and time is of the essence,'” Higginbotham-Brooks wrote in a letter to the board.

Last year, Morris Brown College in Atlanta filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in an attempt to prevent foreclosure and sale of the school at auction after serious financial mismanagement. The college lost its accreditation, is not receiving federal funding, but is still open and accepting students.

HBCU presidents can be mad at Obama, but the harsh reality is this: Some of these wounds are self-inflicted and black colleges have to keep their finances in order to stay in business.

Duncan, however, maintained that Howard University, a flagship college among HBCU’s, must be preserved.

“Howard is facing real challenges but it is an extraordinarily important institution for this country,” Duncan said.  “We need Howard not only to survive, but to thrive.”

HBCU’s need help and they deserve it, but black college presidents must also hold themselves accountable, balance their books, and strive for fiscal integrity.

(Photo: Courtesy of Michael Cottman)

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