Unfortunately, when they are taken seriously, these so-called "rankings" can cause prospective students to make very bad career decisions because they distract attention from the real question: Which HBCU is the best HBCU for YOU? This question has become even more critical in the aftermath of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Sensible answers must be based on reliable data. Although the available data about America's colleges and universities is not as good as it should be, the Web now provides free access to gigabytes of useful information from reliable sources that can enable prospective students (and/or their supporting families) to quickly narrow their options down to a small handful of feasible possibilities. Nobody should pay any attention to gimmicky "rankings."
A. Sources of Information about HBCUs
Nowadays the most important souces of information about HBCUs are:
- The U.S. Department of Education's College Navigator
This Website provides data about all of the accredited colleges and univerisities in the United States, e.g., tuition, estimated costs of books and other materials, male/female composition, racial composition, and six year graduation rates.
- The Carnegie Classifications
This Website enables users to identify colleges and universities that are similar to one another by a variety of measures.
- HBCU Websites
Each HBCU now has its own Website that provides background information about the history and the mission of the HBCU, descriptions of its current courses, programs, tuition & fees, and announcements about its most recent achievements and upcoming events.
- Personal observation
Once you've narrowed your options down to a few possibilities, there is no substitute for direct observation, i.e., visits to the campus for discussions with faculty, students, and administrators. You should also talk to some of their recent alumni.
B. Traditional vs. Nontraditonal Students
Traditional students attend classes on weekdays, usually between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. By contrast, nontraditional students can only attend classes on evenings, weekends, and via distance learning because of their jobs and/or family obligations. Traditional students tend to be younger (18 to 25), attend classes full-time, and only work only part-time. Nontraditional students are older and attend classes on a part-time basis. Traditional students are usually enrolled in degree programs; many nontraditional students are enrolled in job skills certificate training programs.
- Unfortunately, the vast majority of the courses and programs offered by the 106 HBCUs are still geared towards traditional students. For example, most HBCU classes are offered on weekdays.
- The most selective private HBCUs, e.g., Spelman, Morehouse, and Howard, offer the least number of courses and programs for nontraditional students.
- Most of the nontraditional programs are offered by four year public institutions -- e.g, North Carolina A&T, Fayetteville State, and Tennessee State -- and by two year public institutions -- e.g., Trenholm State Technical College, J.F. Drake State Technical College, and Gadsden State Community College.
- The Department of Education's Navigator and the Carnegie Classification Websites (as well as the so-called annual magazine "ratings") don't provide much information about programs for nontraditional students; their data focuses on programs for traditional students.
C. Checklist for Nontraditional Students
1. If you are a nontraditional student, are you seeking a degree?
If you are seeking an associates or a bachelors degree, the number of HBCU options is even smaller.
2. If you are a nontraditional student, does the HBCU offer the degree programs or certificate programs in which you are interested?As noted above, most HBCU programs are still geared towards traditional students. This is one of the reasons why for-profit colleges like the Phoenix, Strayer, Kaplan, and DeVry have been so successful in enrolling African Americans in recent years. They offer more of the programs that nontraditional African American students are looking for than do HBCUs.
3. If you are a nontraditional student seeking job skills certificate training, can you afford the HBCU program or do you need financial aid?
- Information about the costs of nontraditional certificate programs can be found on the HBCU Websites
- The largest and most reliable source of financial aid is the Federal government, especially during the current recession. Federal guidelines do permit the provision of financial aid to nontraditional students enrolled in certificate training programs but, unfortunately, some HBCUs have not organized their certificate programs to meet the Federal requirements. The availability of Federal aid should be indicated on the HBCU Website, but if the Website doesn't explicitly state this availability, you should contact the HBCU to be sure.
The remaining questions assume that you are a traditional student seeking an associates or bachelors degree.
1. Which HBCUs are accredited?
Unfortunately, a few HBCUs have recently lost their accreditation and a few more may be in the danger zone. If an HBCU is not listed in the College Navigator, it is not accredited.
Loss of accreditation prevents current students from obtaining additional Federal aid, jeopardizes their chances for admission to graduate/professional schools, and diminishes their employment opportunities. You should also be mindful of reliable reports about scandals and lawsuits involving an HBCU's senior administrators. Most HBCUs are small enough that these kinds of distractions can seriously undermine their efficiency to the point where accreditation may be jeopardized in the future. (Note: Prior to the election of the Obama Administation, loss of accreditation automatically meant loss of official "HBCU status; but not anymore.)
2. Which HBCUs offer the degree programs you want and at what price (tuition, books, and fees)?
The best sources for this information are the course catalogs posted on the HBCU Websites
3. If you are seeking a bachelors degree, of the HBCUs that offer the progams you want, which ones have the best six year graduation rates?
- The College Navigator provides this information based on data submitted by the HBCUs themselves. It measures the performance of a recent entering class, specifically, the percentage that graduated within six years after they first enrolled.
- On the one hand, there probably isn't much difference between an HBCU with a 69% six year graduation rate and one with a 60% six year rate. On the other hand, there is probably a world of difference in the educational experiences of students at HBCUs with a 100% or 79 % six year graduation rates and those with less than a 34% six year rates. Unfortunately, a discouraging number of HBCUs are graduating less one third of their students within six years. There is no escaping the fact that some HBCUs are doing a far better job than others.
- Once again the College Navigator provides this information.
- Overall two year graduation rates are smaller than the six year rates for four year programs, but once again, these rates should not be taken literally. There probably isn't much difference between HBCUs having 10% overall rates versus HBCUs with 9% graduation rates. But there is probably a significant difference in the educational experiences of students at HBCUs with 32% rates and HBCUs with only 8% rates.
Finally, there's the question that should be asked by all students, be they traditional or nontraditional:
- Why do you want to attend an HBCU?
- Attending HBCUs led by competent administrators and manned by qualified faculty exposes African American students to a broader range of career role models than they would find at most predominantly White colleges and universities.
- Possessing an extensive roster of career role models, HBCUs can also provide African American students with another important advantage: the academic freedom they need in order to work out their personal strategies for coping with the demeaning and distracting racism that still pervades American society.