Wednesday, August 26, 2009

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:

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