Sunday, June 07, 2009

Why Are HBCUs Still Needed? -- Part I

A. Context
We are now 55 years from the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision and 45 years from the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. As a result of these judicial/legislative landmarks that outlawed de jure segregation and undermined the persistence of de facto segregation, the vast majority of African American students no longer attend HBCUs. So it is fair to ask: why does America still need colleges and universities that continue to have enrollments that are mostly Black, even if this racial imbalance is maintained voluntarily?

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) has provided a widely referenced answer to this question about the continued need for HBCUs on its Website (http://www.uncf.org/members/aboutHBCU.asp). An extensive excerpt appears below:

“While the 105 HBCUs represent just three percent of the nation’s institutions of higher learning, they graduate nearly 20 percent of African Americans who earn undergraduate degrees. … HBCU's are experts at educating African Americans:
  • HBCUs graduate over 50 percent African American professionals.
  • HBCUs graduate over 50 percent of African American public school teachers and 70 percent of African American dentists.
  • 50 percent of African Americans who graduate from HBCUs go on to graduate or professional schools.
  • HBCUs award more than one in three of the degrees held by African Americans in natural sciences.
  • HBCUs award one-third of the degrees held by African Americans in mathematics.
  • According to a 2004 McKinsey study, the average graduation rate at many HBCUs is higher than the average graduation rate for African Americans at majority institutions.“
B. A Minimal Standard
The UNCF has been the most successful fund-raiser for African Americans in higher education. Its impressive credentials range from the creation of the highly successful slogan – “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” – to becoming the principal administrator of the Gates Foundation’s billion dollar contribution to minority higher education (http://www.gmsp.org/default.aspx). Given that HBCUs range from two year community colleges to full-scale universities replete with professional degree programs in engineering, medicine, and the law, and Ph.D. programs in the sciences and humanities, the UNCF has implicitly defined a minimal standard that should be attained by all HBCUs. To be specific:
  • HBCUs should demonstrate significantly greater competence in the education of African American students than majority institutions of higher learning.
Unfortunately, the data in U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator online database (http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator) suggests that many HBCUs do not meet this minimal standard. In May 2009 at least 36 HBCUs out of the 88 HBCUs having four year undergraduate programs graduated less than one-third of their students in six years. As for the McKinsey study, its finding would be compelling if it stated that the overall average graduation rate for Black students at ALL HBCUs was significantly higher than the overall average graduation rate for Black students at ALL non-HBCUs; but it doesn’t say this. In effect it merely recognizes that Spelman’s 81 percent and Howard’s 69 percent six year graduation rates for non-Hispanic Black students are higher than the six year rates at many non-HBCUs.

Much of the UNCF's data is historic, i.e., an accurate reflection of conditions in the long transition between the pre-Civil Rights era, when the vast majority of African American students continued to be educated at HBCUs at both undergraduate and graduate levels, and today. But moving forward, as more and more African American students enroll in majority colleges and universities, it is highly doubtful if these historic trends will persist. Indeed, in a report that I posted on the Gateway a few years ago, I noted that many for-profit colleges and universities were now producing so many Black graduates at the undergraduate and graduate levels as to cast them in a role hitherto played exclusively by HBCUs. (http://www.dll.org/WorkingPapers/Reports/StrategicPartnerships_Apr2006/default.asp)
In the last five years two HBCUs lost their accreditation (Barber-Scotia College and Morris Brown University).

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. As the editor/manager of the Gateway to HBCUs” Website, I have closely monitored HBCU activities for almost fifteen years. For the most part I have refrained from publishing links to the many articles in the higher education media and on the HBCU Websites themselves that reported the continuing administrative turmoil that has engulfed many HBCUs during this period. (Note: I only published a few links to these negative reports on the Gateway because I wanted the Gateway to emphasize the positive academic achievements of HBCUs.)

These persistent management problems suggest that there aren’t enough competent Black administrators to manage all of the nation’s 104 HBCUs. Prior to the Civil Rights Revolution, HBCUs had a monopoly on the best Black talent. Where else could they work? However, it is a bitter irony that in today’s more complex, IT-intensive society, HBCUs require administrators with more talent than in pre-Civil Rights days, but there may be fewer qualified Black administrators available to HBCUs. Given the sorry fact that most HBCUs are chronically underfunded, why should a talented Black administrator work for an HBCU when he or she could receive higher pay, deploy better resources, and help educate a larger number of Black students by working at a non-HBCU? I anticipate that the unprecedented depth of the current recession will cause many HBCUs to close their doors within the next five to ten years; nor is this necessarily a bad thing. The nation does not need HBCUs that cannot meet minimal standards.

C. Role Models and Academic Freedom
The discouraging six year graduation rates of over forty percent of the HBCUs should dispel any notions that HBCUs are inherently better qualified to teach African American students than predominantly White colleges and universities. Leadership skills and subject matter expertise are far more important than the skin color of a college’s administrators and faculty.

But why should an HBCU that has competent administrators and qualified faculty provide a better education for African American students than a non-HBCU having equally competent administrators and equally qualified faculty? Why should skin color make a difference? Should short students go to “historically short colleges and universities”? Should left-handed students go to “historically left-handed colleges and universities”? 

If HBCUs only taught “Black” subjects like Black Music, Black Poetry or Black Dance, the advantages of having a predominantly Black faculty would be self-evident. But they don’t. Therefore their schools of engineering, medicine, and law don’t teach “Black Engineering”, “Black Medicine”, or “Black Law”, nor do their departments of economics, physics, mathematics, and chemistry teach “Black Economics”, “Black Physics”, “Black Mathematics”, or “Black Chemistry”. So why should a Black student gain any educational advantage in today’s post-Civil Rights Era by studying these subjects in a predominantly Black environment? Here are my answers:
  • 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.

    It’s one thing to read about Black chemists, Black physicists, or Black mathematicians in high school classes during Black History Month; it’s quite another to sit in their classes. It’s one thing to read about high level Black managers; it’s quite another to see them up close, making important decisions. The legal restrictions of slavery and segregation may have been abolished, but the capacities of many African American students to take maximum advantage of the opportunities available to them in today’s society are often impeded by self-imposed limits. Few of us are pioneers … or want to be. Most people need to see that others have already gone down lesser-known paths to be sure that passage down such paths is even possible. In other words, many African American students still need African American role models and mentors to inspire them to realize their fullest potential, and the more role models the better.
  • 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.

    Contrary to the national media, no one speaks for all Black people. There are no "Black Popes". This is commonly accepted at HBCUs, so their students do not engage in mutually destructive "Blacker-than-thou" games. Nor do HBCU professors indulge their students' misperceptions, something that happens all too frequently on predominantly White campuses where liberal professors are guilted into subverting academic standards they had sworn allegiance to all of their adult lives.

    Rather than pay their Black students the ultimate courtesy of honest disagreement, they stand mute in the face of the most inane gibberish -- “Gee, I always thought that two plus two was four … but maybe it’s five for Black People“. The existence of a broader range of African American role models among an HBCU’s faculty, staff, and senior administrators exposes African American students to a broader range of coping strategies from which to choose. At HBCUs, African American students -- as well as African American faculty, staff, and senior administrators -- are free to be any shade of Black they want to be. ... :-)
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