ATLANTA – Two years ago, Amelia Smith received the one thing she thought she always wanted — a blue envelope from Spelman College. She had been accepted to what many consider the finest black college in America.
Her grandmother went to Spelman. So did her mother. And her aunt. And her sister, who's a senior there now. So Smith wasn't surprised when she was accepted, too.
She's wrapping up her sophomore year, but not at Spelman. She's studying biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech. "I am kind of the black sheep in the family," Smith said. "When I got accepted into Tech, I felt very proud of myself. My grandmother [a dean at Fort Valley State University] was very proud of me. She said if she had had the opportunity to go to Tech when she was choosing a college, she would have gone. But she never got that chance."
Smith's good fortune is Spelman College's loss. She is a highly coveted black student who had her pick of any college she could get into and afford. But that hard-won freedom comes at a price for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Predominantly white schools are picking off black colleges' best prospects. Fifty years ago, 90 percent of black college students went to black colleges. Now 90 percent of black students are at mostly white schools.
Spelman is one of the richest and most highly regarded of the 101 accredited HBCUs. As are Howard University in Washington and Morehouse College in Atlanta. They are not in danger because of choices like the one Smith made. But many HBCUs are.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed key data measures that relate to the health and stability of 101 schools — including enrollment, graduation rates, student retention and core revenue. It found some troubled institutions that have struggled for years.
Tiny Paine College in Augusta, Ga., has lost 46 percent of its enrollment since 2010, and two-thirds of Paine's freshman class in 2015 didn't come back for sophomore year. Meanwhile, the oldest HBCU in America, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, lost 55 percent of its enrollment during that period. Its six-year graduation rate in 2015 was 17 percent. At South Carolina State University, enrollment declined 30 percent and revenue 27 percent.
Colleges can't sustain those kinds of numbers for long — evident in the fact that at least six HBCUs have closed since 1988 and at least two (including one in Atlanta) are now colleges in name only.
Some college finance experts predict that dozens of HBCUs will disappear in the next 20 years.
"I am hopeful, but not optimistic," said Johnny Taylor, former president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports public HBCUs. Taylor believes as many as one-quarter of HBCUs will not survive the next two decades.
HBCUs have educated countless black doctors, lawyers, theologians, entrepreneurs, journalists, teachers, entertainers and politicians.
Nine of the 101 accredited HBCUs are in Georgia, and five of them are in the same neighborhood in Atlanta, giving the city the densest concentration of black colleges in the nation.
At least six northern HBCUs were founded before the Civil War. Morehouse, founded in 1867, was one of nine black colleges that celebrated their 150th birthday in 2017.
Enrollment rose to its zenith, about 325,000, in 2010, the year after Barack Obama became president.
But today, the tide that brought so many blacks into America's middle class seems to be shifting. In the five years following that 2010 spike, enrollment declined by 10 percent — compared to the 4 percent drop for all colleges during that period.
Some schools are reporting enrollment gains this year. Between 2010 and 2015, however, 20 black colleges saw enrollment plummet by more than 25 percent; only 22 black colleges saw increases during that time.
Poor financial decisions put some HBCUs on the list. Most have never had large budgets. In recent years:
• States have cut funding to three out of four public HBCUs since the recession. Louisiana's funding to Grambling State University, for example, was cut in half in a recent eight-year stretch.
• The Obama administration tightened credit requirements on federal student loans in 2012. Suddenly, applicants for so-called PLUS loans were turned down by the thousands, taking a deep slice of enrollment out of dozens of HBCUs. After a loud outcry from students, parents, colleges and lawmakers, the changes were rescinded in 2015.
• HBCUs have long struggled to attract money from foundations or donors. Bill and Camille Cosby's $25 million gift to Spelman in 1988 is believed to be the largest donation to an HBCU. "That was 30 years ago," Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough said. "That's ridiculous."
HBCUs have also looked inward at another long-standing problem: the lack of alumni support. Barely one in 10 graduates gave money back to their college, U.S. News & World Report reported. At Princeton, the most recent alumni giving rate was more than 60 percent, U.S. News said. At Morehouse, about 20 percent of alumni donate to the school.
The country's first three black colleges — Cheyney, Lincoln and Wilberforce — were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio to give free blacks and former slaves the fundamental right that had been considered too dangerous for them to have: an education.
"When you think about the students we serve, this is the first time that they are the center and focus of the academic experience, and that is power," said William Fisher, who runs the U.S. Education Department's HBCU Capital Financing Program.
If HBCUs were founded because black students had no other place to go, they began to suffer when white schools started admitting black students in large numbers.
"HBCUs were caught a little off-guard by majority institutions when they integrated, swooped down and took the cream of the crop and then walked away," said Claflin University President Henry Tisdale. "Somehow, we had conceded that we couldn't compete. We said, 'Let them get the best and we will take what is remaining.' "
The challenges facing HBCUs are embodied in a school in downtown Atlanta. Georgia State University, which is not an HBCU, graduated more black students in 2017 than any institution in the nation.
Many of those black Georgia State students are first-generation college students with low family incomes. Paul Jones, president of the HBCU Fort Valley State in Middle Georgia, says they remind him of himself.
Jones, in year two at Fort Valley State, was born in Los Angeles and didn't attend an HBCU. Some Fort Valley folks weren't keen on hiring him, but he's invested in the task and can become emotional talking about his students.
"I cannot fail them," he said in a recent interview on campus.
Jones and his team are like many HBCU administrators, trying to figure out what will work to help the college succeed. Part of their plan includes getting students involved in community service projects and leveraging successful academic programs — such as Fort Valley's agricultural research curriculum — with other colleges and organizations.
Clark Atlanta University entered into an agreement with Georgia Piedmont Technical College last year: GPTC offers remedial courses for students with the goal of sending those students on to Clark. Some HBCUs, such as Tennessee State, are recruiting more international students. Morehouse's new president says he wants to create more courses that fulfill part of the original mission of HBCUs: improving the lives of all blacks.
Racial disputes on some campuses, as well as Donald Trump's presidency, have renewed interest in HBCUs this year.
"I knew that I wanted an HBCU experience where black people are constantly loving on you," said Tahir Murray, 18, a Howard University freshman who grew up in Fayette County, Ga. "There are people here from all over the United States and world, with different religions and backgrounds. And when we talk about race, we can have good, in-depth conversations. It is not just surface-level outrage."
Experts say HBCUs must invest more money in technology to improve the financial aid submission process, a problem that frustrates countless students. Noting that half of all black college students are taking online courses at community colleges, these experts also say HBCUs need to step up with digital course offerings of their own.
"We have to ask ourselves what is the future for us?" said Jones. "What is it we have to do to ensure we are around for the next 100 years? We can be in the driver's seat or the passenger's seat."
Smith's blue Spelman envelope is somewhere in her parents' home in Macon. She still marvels at how close she came to being a Spelmanite. "Learning in an environment where everyone looks like you is special. It is not bad at Georgia Tech, but different," she said. "My sister and best friend go to Spelman and I fight for HBCUs like I go to one."