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: