Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Why are HBCUs Still Needed? -- Part III

Declining Market Share
Relentless financial pressure from the continuing Great Recession ensures  continuation of the long-term decline in the percentage of black American students who attend HBCUs. Within a few years the HBCU share will drop below 10 percent. So I return, once again, to the question that I have addressed a few times before on this blog: "Why are HBCUs still needed?"

I begin this effort where my last left off, with the assertion that HBCUs have to let go of their historical justification. In a hyper-modern, fast moving economy, nobody cares about what any kind of institution has done in the past. So yes, one more time, let's all stand up and loudly cheer, "All hail the glorious contributions that HBCUs made to black higher education in times past!!!" OK? Now, back to reality. Looking forward, the existential challenge is brutally focused: "What can HBCUs do for all black American college students right now and in the foreseeable future?"

We have to be concerned about all black students, not just those enrolled in our own institutions; otherwise we doom ourselves to increasingly marginal positions as the market share of HBCUs continues its inexorable decline. Indeed, HBCUs should have no legitimate future in an integrated society that lived up to the historic commitment to equality won by the Civil Rights Revolution in the 1960s ... except for the sad facts of the actual record since the Revolution that makes their continuing existence an absolute necessity.

The Promise and Failure of Integration
I can remember asking myself back in the tumultuous 60s, how long it would take to close the most significant gaps between black and white America, and I can remember persuading myself that forty or fifty years, at most, would be sufficient. Why? Because I was absolutely certain that the biggest gaps in black and white achievement had the same root cause: segregation. Segregation systematically assigned the best opportunities to whites, and left us blacks with little or nothing. So I was certain that it would take no more than fifty years of integrated equal opportunity, two generations, to render obsolete the historic roles of the black colleges and universities, mostly located in the newly desegregated South.

I was certain that the beloved institutions that had educated so many prominent black Americans would no longer be needed because black Americans would find "better" opportunities for higher education at the better funded, integrated colleges and universities located throughout all of the nation's fifty states.  Once the inequities within the nation's broken system of higher education were repaired, I was absolutely certain that, given sufficient time, the system would automatically produce equal outcomes, especially with substantial boosts from initiatives that greatly expanded access to these better educational opportunities, such as President Johnson's Affirmative Action programs. Fifty years, two generations, was surely a sufficient amount of time.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. Our situation improved dramatically in the 70s and 80s. But somehow we got stuck in the 90s and society began to roll sideways. Gaps in the academic achievements of blacks and whites have become persistent and profoundly disturbing. To be sure, substantial progress was made, so the glass became half full ... but for too many black students throughout the land, the promise of the 60s is still a dream deferred because for them the glass is still half empty. So the vast majority of our black students now attend integrated colleges and universities, but their retention rates, graduation rates, and GPAs are also substantially lower than their non-black peers. And our best and brightest, our "Talented Tenth", are not pursuing degrees in STEM, finance, and other complex fields as intensively as the best and brightest non-black students, degrees that would launch them on careers that offered higher pay, higher prestige, and greater opportunities to use the black power of their higher status to help other black students follow their pioneering paths to success.

Twelve years into the New Millennium, I find no reason to continue to blindly trust that the "invisible hand" of the desegregated American system of higher education, correction, the desegregated systems of American education at all levels, will automatically develop more effective teaching methods that will enable black students to overcome their residual historic handicaps and thereby close these persistent gaps in academic achievement. And even when more effective methods are identified, I can no longer blindly trust that our current systems of education will automatically allocate the resources required to ensure that these more effective teaching methods will be disseminated throughout all systems down to all of the classrooms wherein black students are enrolled -- not even with substantial support from government programs or with the well intended and well funded assistance from the Gates, Lumina, and other enlightened philanthropies. To the contrary, the discouraging record of the last two decades compels me to anticipate that things are going to continue to drift sideways ... and possibly downwards. Many will benefit, but most will not.

Keepers of the Dream
Unless ... unless ... unless an extensive network of institutions makes it their collective mission to boldly assert a collaborative leadership role in the identification and dissemination of teaching methods that are more effective for all of the black students who are currently enrolled everywhere. Now let me think. Does our society have any institutions that are dedicated to providing black Americans with the best possible opportunities for higher education? Hmmmmmm ... :-)

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