There has been a concerted effort by the State of Maryland and the University System of Maryland (USM) to portray Coppin State University as a dysfunctional institution of higher education. While the Judge (Blake) was still deliberating the current HBCU lawsuit, the University System hastily put together a review (Special) committee to ostensibly investigate the university. As expected the committee returned a shopping list of dysfunctions on the campus that would require the “Special Intervention (rescue)” by the university system.
The fact is, the special committee uncovered nothing that had not already been made known to the board and the Chancellor by the CSU Faculty Senate (a year earlier) or the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report at least 10 years earlier.
What has not been reflected in the current portrayals is the real short-falls in the operating budget and the lack of adequate financial support for students. Dr. Marybeth Grasman (University of Pennsylvania), a leading HBCU researcher cites the lack of sufficient financial support as the main impediment to higher success and completion rates at HBCUs across the nation including Coppin. During the 2013 Commencement season only four of the 105 HBCUs across the nation had graduation rates better than 50 percent (Morehouse, Spellman, Hampton, and Howard). These also are the institutions with the largest endowments and a larger number of middle class students. It is very clear that in order for larger numbers of poor students to be successful, institutions of higher education must become more creative and better funded to meet student needs. During the 2012 academic year CSU failed to distribute $800,000 of state provided student support. For this the campus paid dearly relative to enrollment and retention. In fact some of the budget shortfall can be attributed to the drop in enrollment. This was an administration issue. What is not a matter of administration is the fact that more than a majority of Coppin Students (62 percent) are parents (75 percent female) and an overwhelming majority of students including those receiving financial aid hold full time jobs.
Coppin has the highest proportion of Pell Grant recipients (63.7 percent) of any institution in the USM. Pell grants are awarded by the federal government based upon student (and family) poverty status. When poor students come to college, the poor homes that they come from do not stop being poor. The fact is about 80 percent of CSU students live off campus, many at home. For those at home, their responsibilities to contribute to the survival of the household do not change and may increase as they have now completed high school.
Coppin’s graduation rate, now 19 percent, reflects some of the serious challenges of educating poor students across the country. The University of Maryland College Park has the highest graduation rate (81.9 percent) among Maryland’s state supported institutions. It also has the lowest percent (18.7 percent) of low income students in the state system. It is sheer folly on behalf of the USM and the state to continue to behave as if a middle income student at College Park supported by his or her parents faces the same challenges as a low income Coppin student who is working full time to help meet the needs of his or her poor household.
About 600 of Coppin’s near 3000 students live on campus. The National Center for Education Statistics (College Navigator) suggests it costs an off campus student nearly $20,000 a year to attend Coppin. The average award, usually a Pell Grant and a loan, is far less than that, often only covering tuition and fees and a few supplies. The other costs of living are borne by the student. In all likelihood this student will face greater challenges and take longer to complete his or her degree. All too often students are simply overwhelmed by this burden and drop out all together. The number of former students who have stopped out after completing near 90 of the needed 120 credits for a degree is a reason for major concern. Little wonder that the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) has developed a special program to create a pathway for these students to earn a degree and all the potential benefits it can bring to them, their family and the larger community.
Coppin State University is not a basket case. In fact it has been a light at the end of the tunnel for so many students across the state and nation, as well as a significant number of international students. Its location (on a major bus route) in the city, its small size, a dedicated and concerned faculty, supportive staff, and a generally pleasant environment make it attractive to many students and their families in ways that other institutions may not be. It is time for the state and the University System to find ways to better support the institution rather than to condemn it and throw special committee stones at it.
Nothing is taking place on campus which was not quite visible as early as ten years ago. With President Obama’s challenge to increase the number of degree holders across the nation, Coppin can be on the cutting edge of getting more low income and otherwise under represented students to a degree. In order for this to happen the state and USM cannot continue treating CSU as a poorly performing “chocolate version” of College Park. Coppin is indeed a diamond in the rough and continues to battle uncommon challenges as the state and USM shower blame, divert responsibility, and cast aspersions in a manner similar to that of Cinderella’s ugly sisters.
Dr. John L. Hudgins is co-director of Human Services Administration and associate professor of sociology at Coppin State University.