Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Why Are HBCUs Still Needed? -- Part IV

Keepers of the Dream
This is my fourth attempt to address this question, and each version has been more pessimistic than the last as to the likelihood that the non-HBCUs in the integrated mainstream of U.S. higher education will close the persistent academic achievement gaps -- in retention rates, graduation rates, GPAs, participation in STEM fields, etc -- between their black and non-black students. (For example, see The Education Trust's May 2012 report "Replenishing Opportunity in America") The persistence of these gaps becomes ever more ominous as the percentage of black students enrolled in non-HBCUs rises to 90 percent and beyond.
Fifty years after the victorious Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s, HBCUs should not exist. Fortunately they are still there because they provide an unexpected remedy for the unexpected failure of mainstream institutions to fulfill Dr. King's Dream, a dream that can only be fully realized in an integrated society wherein race has no more bearing on any kind of significant achievement than the width of one's shoes.

From Stagnation to Revolution
It seems to me that the mainstream has become integrated just enough to perpetuate academic achievement gaps indefinitely. It has now become awkward, politically incorrect, and possibly illegal for colleges and universities in the integrated mainstream to direct their funds and other resources towards developing remedies that might substantially improve the performance of their black students unless these remedies show promise of improving the performance of all students. For lack of sufficiently powerful innovations, the mainstream's traditional methods will leave black students stuck where they are.

Ironically, HBCUs are not bound by such constraints. For example, a random sample of students at most HBCUs would be mostly black. And there would be enough variation within the sample that researchers could explore the influence of non-racial factors on the students' performance. On the other hand, HBCUs have always had more diverse faculties than the mainstream. So they are better positioned to identify innovative teaching methods that also work for non-black instructors. Without such color-blind innovations, black students in the mainstream would be significantly disadvantaged until the faculties at those institutions become as diverse as their student bodies, something that won't occur, at the current pace, for at least another fifty years.

Archimedes, the great physicist/mathematician of the third century BC, claimed that if he had a long enough lever and a place to stand he could move the earth. Well I say that the community of HBCUs provides the ground where we can stand. And the lever we need to move U.S. higher education is the powerful cluster of inexpensive Internet technologies that are rapidly transforming every sector of every society on the planet. 

If black America's first revolution was the Civil Rights Revolution, I say that HBCUs should lead a second revolution, an Education Revolution, that will introduce inexpensive, Internet-based eLearning innovations in all courses in all programs that will be far more effective than the traditional methods that have failed to achieve the Dream, innovations that will be powerful enough to close the persistent black/white achievement gaps within the next ten to twenty years. 

Unfair Burden on HBCUs
Let me acknowledge right away that my perspective imposes an unfair burden on HBCUS. Fairness demands that the non-HBCUs in the mainstream that enroll almost 90 percent of the black students and have access to far more than 90 percent of the funds and other relevant resources of U.S. higher education should develop at least 90 percent of the needed innovations. Indeed, that's what I expected for most of my career as an educator, but no more. Why not? Because I finally accepted life's harsh lesson that necessity really is the mother of invention. 

In today's highly networked global economy, knowledge has become the coin of new opportunity. But the persistence of monumental historic disparities in our society means that all other things are still unequal; hence black students need more knowledge than their non-black peers to order to purchase the equal opportunities they desire. Hence Black America needs more powerful innovations in education than anyone else. In other words, most of the students in the mainstream may be content with slow moving evolution; but our students need a revolution, and they need it now.

Local Impacts
Let me also categorically state that I am not advocating that any HBCUs be closed if they only contribute limited leadership towards efforts to radically reorganize the nation's system of higher education. HBCUs are complex institutions that make a broad array of contributions to their local communities:
  • On the one hand HBCUs have substantial impact on their local economies via their purchase of the goods and services they need to support their operations; and their students, faculty, and staff add to this impact via their purchase of goods and services as consumers.
  • On the other hand, HBCUs employ highly educated faculty and staff who provide their communities with a reliable supply of informed citizens whose presence has substantial cognitive impact on their community's affairs via their participation as volunteers on PTA committees, school boards, after school tutoring programs, police review boards, library committees, churches, juries, charity drives, voter registration drives, political campaigns, etc, etc, etc.
So the existential question must be addressed on two levels, national and local. In other words, we should really ask, "Why is this particular HBCU still needed?" In many cases its tangible local contributions will greatly exceed its potential contributions to national initiatives.

A Case Study
It's too soon to say what the "Education Revolution" will look like once it's underway, so I conclude these notes with a sketch of an initiative with which I am personally involved that suggests that our goals may be clear, but our path from "here" to "there" may not be straight-forward ... :-)
  • Tom Joyner's Appeal
    Howard-University is in the process of organizing a comprehensive array of online and blended, degree and certificate programs for non-traditional students. The immediate inspiration for this initiative came from Tom Joyner's impassioned appeal back in 2010 for HBCUs to become major players in the market for online programs, a market wherein the for-profit colleges and universities had become the fastest growing institutions.

    Note: Mr. Joyner is a successful radio personality and in the last ten years his Foundation has provided substantial philanthropic support for the HBCU community, second only to the Gates Foundation.

    Note: Non-traditional students have family and/or job responsibilities that prevent them from taking classes on a full-time basis on weekdays; they can only take classes part-time in the evenings, on weekends, or via distance learning.

  • Black Enrollments
    A key point in Mr. Joyner's appeal was the fact that the explosive growth of the for-profits was fueled by their black enrollments. Indeed, somewhere between 25 percent (my estimate) and 40 percent (other analysts' estimates) of their students were black, i.e., two to three times the market share that one would have expected from the relative size of the black population with respect to the entire U.S. population.
  • For-Profit Abuses
    These figures were alarming in the context of the abusive recruitment practices, low graduation rates, large student loans, high default rates, and subsequent unemployability of many of the graduates of the for-profit institutions -- as documented in hearings by Senator Harkin, GAO reports, and reviews by the U.S. Department of Education. In other words, Mr. Joyner was appealing to HBCUs to "Do well by doing good." If HBCUs offered high quality online programs that only recruited qualified black students, they would provide these students with better value for their tuition dollars ... and might earn substantial revenue in the process.
  • Howard-Online
    Howard University's Board of Trustees responded to Mr. Joyner's appeal by directing the university's president to establish an administrative unit, eventually called "Howard-Online," to develop a feasible plan for Howard's entry into this market, a plan that would enable the University to offer a comprehensive array of degree and certificate programs within a few years.

    Note: Full disclosure requires that I inform the reader that I am Howard-Online's Director ... :-)
  • Impediments to Online Programs
    Developing online and blended degree programs is easier said than done. All HBCUs face two major impediments:
    (1) Developing enough online courses to offer a degree program is expensive i.e., faculty members who are subject matter experts and instructional technologists who enhance the faculty's drafts have to be paid for the time required to develop online courses; and
    (2) Marketing online programs on the Web and elsewhere in today's highly competitive market is even more expensive. 
  • Selective Private HBCUs face a third impediment:
    (3) Substantial segments of the faculty at selective private HBCUs, like their peers at selective private institutions in the mainstream, have reservations about the quality of online programs for non-traditional students compared to the quality of their traditional programs. Howard University is one of the most selective private HBCUs.
  • Strategic Partners
    Developing and marketing a comprehensive array of online and blended programs will require very substantial up-front investments, investments that would strain Howard's budget in the context of the Great Recession. Therefore Howard-Online is currently considering an alternative approach: engaging a strategic partner.

    In this context, a strategic partner is a well-funded provider of online services who will cover the development and marketing costs of online programs in exchange for a negotiated share of the tuition received when students enroll in the programs.
  • Quality Control through Faculty Control
    The second major component of Howard-Online's strategy is faculty control. All of the courses in Howard-Online's degree and certificate programs must be approved by the faculty; all instructors hired to teach the courses in its programs must have the degrees, years of teaching experience, and other qualifications specified by the faculty; and all students enrolled in its programs must have the GPAs, test scores, and other qualifications specified by the faculty.
  • "Filling the Pipeline"
    The third major component of Howard-Online's strategy recognizes that at this point our faculty have only developed enough courses for a few degree programs that could be converted to online formats suitable for non-traditional students. Once those programs are launched, we have nothing left in our pipeline.

    Therefore in order to fill the pipeline, the University will award a larger share of the tuition revenue to its strategic partner in the initial years of Howard-Online's programs in exchange for the partner's providing personnel and other resources that will assist our faculty to move a substantial number of their courses from face-to-face formats to Web-enhanced, from Web-enhanced to blended, and from blended to online. At each stage the partner will support faculty members' efforts to adopt the specific Internet-based eLearning technologies that would be most likely to enhance the effectiveness of their courses.

    Note: As per the Sloan-Consortium's definitions, "Web-enhanced" courses deliver 10 to 30 percent of their content via the Web; "blended" courses deliver 30 to 80 percent via the Web; and "online" courses deliver 80 to 100 percent via the Web.
  • Current Status ... RFI to RFP
    Howard-Online is currently selecting a strategic partner. A Request for Information (RFI) was published and four nationally renowned providers were invited to respond. In the coming months they will make formal presentations of their responses to the University's faculty, academic support staff, students, and senior administrators as to how their companies could help our faculty move enough courses through the pipeline so that Howard-Online would be able to offer a comprehensive array of degree and certificate programs to non-traditional students within a few years.

    At the end of the RFI discussion period, Howard-Online will publish a Request for Proposal (RFP). The providers' confidential responses will be assessed by a select committee of faculty who are experts in online methodology, by a select committee of the Faculty Senate, and by the University's senior administrators. A contract to become Howard-Online's strategic partner will be negotiated with the provider who submits the winning proposal.

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