Saturday, October 10, 2009

Crossing the Finish Line at HBCUs

A. Overall Review 
I write this note to call my readers' attention to one of the most important books about higher education that I have encountered in the last twenty years. I am referring to a recent publication called Crossing the Finish Line by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson (Princeton University Press, 2009).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

HBCUs vs. FPCUs in the Great Recession

A. Context

This blog continues the discussion begun in a previous blog, "HBCUs in the Great Recession" -- a pessimistic glance at the the negative impact of the Great Recession on the future of the colleges and universities that have provided African Americans with their the most significant opportunities for higher education in times past, i.e., the HBCUs.

The HBCU Community as a National Laboratory for U.S. Higher Education

This blog refines a proposal that was introduced in an earlier blog -- "Why are HBCUs Still Needed? -- Part II"

A. Context

Although continued support for HBCUs is usually justified by references to their historic success in educating African Americans, nowadays eighty percent of African American students attend non-HBCUs. This suggests that their historic justification is a fading argument that may cause us to overlook the potential contributions that HBCUs could make tomorrow, not just to the African American students at HBCUs, but to African American students at non-HBCUs and to all students in the U.S. higher education system -- regardless of their race.

Two of the most important challenges facing HBCUs today also face the non-HBCUs -- fewer male students enroll and they drop out at higher rates than females; and female students enroll in STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at lower rates than males.

  • The "bad news" is that fewer African American males enroll and they also drop out faster than Caucasian and Asian American males; and the proportion of African American females entering STEM programs is lower than for Caucasian and Asian American females. (Note that the performance of African American students is comparable to that of Latino and Native American students.)

    None of this should surprise anyone who is aware of the relative differences in social and economic capital available to most African American, Latino, Native American, Asian American, and Caucasian students because students who have access to more social and economic resources should be expected to be more successful in coping with the challenges of academic life.
  • The "good news" is that solutions that work for HBCUs may also work for non-HBCUs having substantial African American enrollments, for other minorities at non-HBCUs, and possibly even for the socially and economically more advantaged Asian American and Caucasion students facing similar challenges. In other words, non-HBCUs should pay close attention to the successes and failures of HBCUs because they might learn useful things that could help them provide more productive educational experiences for their own students -- regardless of race.

B. HBCUs as a National Lab

An ideal collection of colleges and universities that would serve as a national laboratory for higher education would be a random sample that controlled for race.
  • Most HBCUs are still predominantly Black, so one can assume that race and prejudice have minimal impact on their operations. (At least 93 of the 104 HBCUs have Black/non-Hispanic enrollments greater than 50 percent; this data is not available for five HBCUs.)
  • Although not a random sample, the community of HBCUs is diverse enough for exploratory studies designed to generate insightful hypotheses about education policies and practices. The findings from these exploratory studies could then be proven or disproven by systematic trials conducted at rigorously sampled colleges and universities elsewhere in the U.S. higher education system.
The extraordinary diversity of the HBCU community bears elaboration:
  • Location -- 22 states, districts, and territories
  • Types -- 88 four year, 13 two year, and 3 specialized graduate training
  • Public/Private 4 year -- 40 public, 48 private
  • Public/Private 2 year -- 11 public, 2 private
  • Enrollments -- smallest = 100 , largest = 9900 students
  • Scope -- wide range of programs ranging from vocational training, associates, and bachelors degrees through professional, masters, and Ph.Ds degrees to multimillion dollar NSF/NIH/NASA funded research initiatives
Related notes:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

HBCUs in the Great Recession

Like many of readers of this blog, I have spent a lot of time trying to gauge the impact of the Great Recession on the HBCU community:
  • Although the well-connected bankers at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase are earning record profits thanks to the generous assistance they received from the Federal government, and although the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board recently conjectured that the economy would begin to recover by the end of this year, some of the nation's more astute economists have issued strong warnings that the unemployment rate will reach at least 10 percent before it declines. They have also reminded us that unemployment is a lagging indicator of economic recovery because businesses will tend to extend the working hours of their remaining employees before they rehire old employees or hire new employees.
  • The unemployment rate for African Americans has usually been at least twice as high as the national rate. If anything, the Great Recession has pushed African American unemployment even higher. And as the "last hired, last-rehired", African Americans will be harder pressed to keep up with their children's college tuition payments.
  • It should also be noted that the recession has drastically reduced the funds available from all sources of financial aid -- except the Federal government.
When the recession suddenly deepened last Fall, these considerations led me to anticipate that HBCUs would be hit harder than non-HBCUs because they enrolled a higher percentage of Black students:
  • Private HBCUs would suffer enrollment declines as Black students dropped out or transferred to public colleges and universities having substantially lower tuition. This loss of tuition revenue would push some (many? most? all?) of them into a financial crisis. And the longer high unemployment lasted within the African American community, the greater the likelihood that some private HBCUs would have to close their doors permanently.
  • Public HBCUs might enjoy enrollment increases because of their lower tuition, but their increased tuition revenue might be offset by substantial reductions in their budgets imposed by the governors of their hard pressed states. Furthermore, the longer high unemployment lasted, the greater the existential threat from increased political pressures to merge some public HBCUs with public non-HBCUs or to shut them down entirely. This would come as part of their governor's efforts to reduce size of their state's higher education systems to levels that could be sustained by reduced tax revenues.
Unfortunately, by the beginning of this year some of my pessimistic predictions had already come true. In February, I posted a page on the Gateway ( containing links to the Web sites of some prominent public and private HBCUs whose senior administrators had courageously acknowledged that they were facing severe financial challenges. And in recent months I have also posted links to announcements from public HBCUs that their Fall 2009 enrollments were at record levels.

Note: this discussion is continued in "HBCUs vs. FPCUs in the Great Recession"

Thursday, July 23, 2009

At the Gates of Distraction

In previous blogs I have referred to racism as a "distraction." Of course, it's something far worse than that, but my point is that the perception of racism can distract educated African Americans from achieving their full potential -- even when the impediments presented by racists should be relatively easy to overcome.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Why Are HBCUs Still Needed? -- Part II

This is my second blog that addresses this question. My first (June 2009) considered two advantages that HBCUs still offered African American students:
  • A wider array of African American career role models & mentors than found in most predominantly white universities; and
  • A wider array of personal role models and more academic freedom to help African American students develop their own personal strategies for coping with the distracting racism that still pervades American society.
This blog considers some of the advantages that HBCUs provide to the communities in which they are located and to the American system of higher education.

A. Economic Benefits of HBCUs to Local Communities

There are only 104 HBCUs, and most of them are relatively small organizations that employ fewer than 3,000 faculty and staff and enroll fewer than 5,000 students. So I wasn't surprised by the October 2006 report from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) that estimated the "Economic Impact of the Nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities" as being roughly equivalent to that of the 232nd largest corporation on the Forbes 500 list.

Whereas our biggest banks and our biggest manufacturing firms may be "too big to fail", the same cannot be said for the 232th largest corporation on the Forbes 500 list ... or any other economic entity of comparable size. In other words, their economic impact is not large enough to compel the Federal government to greatly enhance its support for HBCUs during the current Great Recession.

On the other hand, some HBCUs have substantial impact on the economies of their local communities, impacts that should be large enough to compel state and local governments to regard them as worthy of increased support. Consider the following headlines and excerpts from the press releases posted on four HBCU Websites:
  • FSU a Vital Economic Resource in Greater Fayetteville Region -- July 2007

    A study commissioned by FSU Chancellor T.J. Bryan found that Fayetteville State University (FSU) has a total economic output impact of $194.5 million on the Greater Fayetteville region (Cumberland, Harnett, Sampson, Bladen, Robeson, Hoke, and Moore counties).

  • Savannah State has $128 million economic impact during FY 2007 -- July 2008
    Savannah State University’s total impact on the local economy was approximately $128 million during the fiscal year 2007, according to a study conducted by the Selig Center for Economic Growth in the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

  • Economic Impact Study Shows SUNO Gives Taxpayers More for Their Money -- May 2009
    This study highlights the Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) economic impact for the 2008-09 fiscal year in several critical areas, including spending and contributions of our graduates. The overall impact of SUNO's spending is $111,461,082 on a state budget of just over $16 million. In other words, the State of Louisiana's return on its investment at SUNO is approximately seven-fold. For every dollar invested, the State enjoys a return of approximately $7.
  • Xavier University Has Significant Impact on New Orleans Economy -- July 2009
    A 2008 economic impact study shows that Xavier University of Louisiana is a significant contributor to the metropolitan area's economy. According to the study, Xavier generates more than $320-million in economic activities, and about $115.6-million of that is household earnings in the Greater New Orleans Region.
B. HBCUs as a National Laboratory for Higher Education

Unfortunately, African American students are not doing as well in colleges and universities as White students or Asian American students. For example, African Americans enrolled in traditional baccalaureate programs have lower six year graduation rates. Although many factors contribute to this disparity, one of the most obvious is the persistence of racism in our society.

If HBCUs didn't exist, data-oriented policy makers determined to identify the relative importance of other factors contributing to under-performance by African American students might give serious consideration to establishing a "control group" of colleges and universities wherein the forces of racism could be minimized by specifying that their student body, faculty, and administration would be predominantly Black.

  • If the colleges and universities in such a "racism-free" laboratory were sufficiently diverse with regards to other important factors, we could gain greater insight as to which teaching and administrative strategies worked better for African American students and why they worked better.
  • In particular, we could identify strategies that were more effective in improving the retention and performance of African American males; and we could identify strategies that were more effective in encouraging African American females to pursue careers in STEM fields, i.e., in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Well the good news is that such a laboratory of predominantly African American colleges and universities already exists; but the bad news is that our policy makers haven't had the wit to recognize that the lessons learned from the experiences of the nation's 104 HBCUs that enroll 20 percent of African American students could greatly enhance the effectiveness of the thousands of non-HBCUs in their efforts to provide quality higher education for the other 80 percent.

As I noted in my previous blog, it's time we all recognized that some HBCUs are doing a much better job than others. At this point we should be trying to figure out why. Consider two examples:
  • Arkansas Baptist College has a 100 percent six year graduation rate. Although this is a very small college (600 students), a number of other small HBCUs graduate less than 30 percent of their students in six years. So why is Arkansas Baptist so successful? What are they doing that's so right? And could their approach be adopted by non-HBCUs?
  • Spelman College has a 79 percent six year graduation rate, a solid performance that is well above the national average. But what really intrigues me about Spelman is its capacity to inspire its female students to excel in STEM courses -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Every year I post headlines on the HBCU Gateway that link to Spelman's press releases about how well its 100 percent female student body performed in international robotics competitions.

    More significantly, when the National Science Foundation recently looked into the question of where African Americans who received doctorates in science and engineering obtained their undergraduate degrees, Spelman was ranked second (150 doctorates) behind my employer Howard University (224 doctorates). Yes, Howard was Number One ... but ... it only produced 50 percent more doctorates than Spelman even though its undergraduate enrollment (7,000) is three times as large as Spelman's (2300) ... and one third of Howard's enrollment is male, so we don't know how many of its doctorates were female.

    Clearly Howard is doing something right, but whatever that something is, Spelman seems to be doing it much, much better. However the real "winner" in this "competition" could be the thousands of non-HBCUs who sincerely want to inspire their female students to pursue science and engineering careers. They could learn a lot from Spelman ... and from Howard ... :-)
Related notes:

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Best HBCU

Last update: Friday 2/26/16
There is no such thing as "the best HBCU, the second best HBCU, the third best HBCU, etc"; nor is there such a thing as "the best predominantly White institution (PWI) of higher learning, second best, third best, etc. " Annual "rankings" of colleges and universities are nothing more than mildly entertaining bits of gossip whose primary function is to promote the sales of the magazines in which they appear. They should never be taken seriously.

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?