Challenges And Then A Pandemic, But Harris-Stowe's President Is Finding A Way Forward
It has not been financially easy for Harris-Stowe State University over the past few years. The historically Black institution has seen low enrollment and graduation rates. Harris-Stowe has been on a tight budget for years, in part because it receives a lower amount of state funding than other public universities in Missouri.
The coronavirus pandemic brought on another set of challenges for Harris-Stowe. The university cut costs in its budget and could not offer certain courses during the pandemic because it did not meet the enrollment requirement, which left some adjunct faculty without a job fall semester.
However, Harris-Stowe’s newest president, Corey S. Bradford Sr. got resourceful for the university's students in a time of great need. The university awarded more students scholarships to help those who could not afford tuition due to lost wages. It also helped students establish remote learning connections and provided on-campus housing for those who needed a safe space to study or who were facing eviction.
“This COVID situation showed us that change can happen quickly within higher education,” Bradford said. “So we're in a better place, I believe, with our online programs because of the crisis, because it forced us to be innovative, adaptive and to think outside the box.”
Historically Black colleges and universities often are underfunded and lack resources, but Bradford is used to finding ways to maneuver through crises. He came to Harris-Stowe from Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black institution in Texas, where he helped secure millions in funding for the university.
Bradford, who was inaugurated as the university’s 20th president last month, spoke to St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson about the challenges Harris-Stowe faced during the pandemic, his plan to increase the institution's endowment and what’s next for Harris-Stowe.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Andrea Henderson: How did you find the resources to help your students succeed during the pandemic when enrollment across universities decreased?
Corey S. Bradford Sr.: This year presented a lot of challenges for many different people. And so some students needed more resources than others. And because we serve a population that comes from low-income backgrounds, many of them might have had challenges with technology. Many of them might have had parents impacted financially. And so some of our students had to deal with those financial situations worrying about being evicted. So what we had to do was we had to open our campus up. We opened our housing to allow students to have a safe place so that they can come on campus, be able to do their academic work in a safe environment. And so that was some of the challenges.
Henderson: Where did you get the money to help these students?
Bradford: Well, one thing I can say is that the federal government, the stimulus funding, the COVID support, a lot of those resources went to help students. And so we were able to help those students who had those difficult financial hardships to stay in school. Whether we provided the technology for them or whether we helped them pay their tuition bill through a scholarship, that aid went a long way in helping students to continue with their educational pursuits.
Henderson: The pandemic exacerbated existing disparities in the Black community, and education was not excluded. What were some of your tactics to keep the university afloat during a time where institutions were in a bind financially?
Bradford: The disparities that people talked about, it really came to light because those that had the resources could easily deal with this crisis. And those that did not have the resources found it very painful and a tough struggle. While we didn't struggle here, we had enough resources that we were capable of delivering a high quality education to our students. We limited travel. We then had our utility bills, which weren’t as high because you get more students doing remote learning versus coming in person. And so you try to take those savings and apply those to things that you need, like keeping the spaces clean. And we made sure that our security presence was greater. We were trying to do those things to keep us vibrant in this difficult time.
Henderson: How were you able to retain students during the crisis?
Bradford: Actually, our retention rate of existing students went up during this period, surprisingly so. We saw an uptick in the retention of our continuing students. Where we saw a downtick was in new students, new freshmen. And so what we surmise is that a lot of new students chose to take a gap year.
Henderson: What are you all planning on doing to get those freshmen who decided to take that gap year, to get them back on campus, especially if some of them are already in the workforce?
Bradford: I mean, that's going to be somewhat of a challenge if they're already in the workforce. We've done several new things that will increase enrollment this fall. One of the things that I'm proud of and excited about is our new Top One-Hundred Scholars program. This program is designed to keep the best diverse talent right here in St. Louis. We partnered with local high schools and offered their students scholarships that cover 100% of their tuition or a full scholarship ride if they received the presidential scholarship.
Henderson: Obviously you can’t increase funding without enrollment, and HBCUs are often underfunded and lack resources to help students succeed at the same level as students at white institutions. Over the past year HBCUs received a lot of exposure and donations. With years of being underfunded, how can Harris-Stowe compete with other universities when it is working on a razor-thin budget?
Bradford: Well, efforts to increase university endowments is one way to overcome some of those fiscal challenges. And so, to me, this is a major priority for the institution to build that institutional wealth like our white counterparts have. But, wealth-building occurs over time of the institution's life. I will be seeking individuals, corporations and private foundation’s support to help our needy students. The university has been very fortunate this year to have received some outstanding major gifts from our corporate partners. We want to encourage others to give as well. And so we created a matching fund for anyone that wishes to give what I call an endowed gift or what we call here at Harris-Stowe a forever gift. If you give a forever gift to the university — up to $25,000 — we will match it to a matching fund that we have created here. These are gifts that stay with the institution long term.
Henderson: In your previous position at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, where you served as senior vice president for business affairs, you established financial practices that increased Prairie View’s reserves of over $170 million. What’s the biggest challenge for that kind of effort at Harris-Stowe?
Bradford: Well, Prairie View A&M University is a lot larger than Harris-Stowe. And so to build those kinds of reserves is going to require us to grow here at Harris-Stowe. And so that's my vision, is to grow Harris-Stowe and the number of students that will attend the university. Our program offerings will all grow. I think we could easily double in size within the next five years.
Henderson: I know HBCUs in Missouri receive the lowest amount of state appropriations. How can this change?
“It changes through our advocacy of everyone in the community, we all have to advocate for fairer funding for our HBCUs. It requires a lot of voices speaking and saying ‘Why are we not supporting our HBCUs?’”
Bradford: It changes through our advocacy of everyone in the community; we all have to advocate for fairer funding for our HBCUs. It requires a lot of voices speaking and saying, “Why are we not supporting our HBCUs?” I have seen a greater interest from our politicians, from our governor, in supporting our local HBCUs. And so this appropriation session, I'm hoping everything goes well for us, but I think you're going to see some very generous support coming out of Jefferson City for Harris-Stowe this year. And so a lot of that comes from our local politicians, you know, standing up for us. That comes from me being active in my advocacy for the university and engaging with the politicians, letting them know what our needs are. And all of those things are critical factors to us getting increased state support.
Henderson: What new programs did you put in place to help boost employment, especially for the African American graduates that Harris-Stowe produces?
Bradford: We established some new partnerships. One is with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. We have established a new academic partnership with them to help increase the STEM pipeline. Then, also, through this partnership, we're looking to grow a minor in geospatial and geoscience. Another partnership that we established is with the St. Charles Community College. We entered into what I call a “dual-admissions program” with them for a program that we call the Elite Academy. This program allows students to be dually enrolled at Harris-Stowe and at St. Charles Community College. So the student gets to go on to earn their associate’s degree at St. Charles and then they come to Harris-Stowe to complete their bachelor’s degree. This keeps college affordable for the students. It makes the transfer process seamless.
Henderson: What's next for Harris-Stowe?
Bradford: We opened a Hornets research lab at T-REX in downtown St. Louis. We also work with the federal government on a loan forgiveness program that resulted in the removal of about $30 million of debt for the university that were for our university dormitories. We also expanded community outreach programs this year to north county. We also had major capital improvements on campus. We opened a new restaurant called the Hornet's Nest Cafe. It is a new Black-owned business right here in St. Louis. We renovated bathrooms. We updated our child care playground and talked about the baseball fields being renovated. So, it's been an amazing year. So what's next for us? I think we're on solid ground right now. The trajectory for the university is pointing straight up. We're looking forward to a COVID-free fall enrollment this year. We have renovation projects that are going to be taking place this summer. We're going to be renovating some science labs. We're going to start renovations on the old Vashon center. And so my overall goal is to continue to elevate this institution to new heights and to help meet the needs of our community and to have a greater impact on St. Louis and our region.
Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist