Wednesday, October 10, 2012

But What About the Other 91 Percent???

The following quote from a page on the Website of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) contains a succinct version of the most widely cited justification for the continued existence of HBCUs:
"While the 105 HBCUs represent just three percent of the nation’s institutions of higher learning, they graduate nearly 20 percent of African Americans who earn undergraduate degrees. In addition, the institutions graduate more than 50 percent of African American professionals and public school teachers.
I have never been comfortable with this justification for two reasons:
  • Its underlying data has a short shelf-life
  • In the long run it's a counter-productive distraction for anyone concerned about black higher education
I have been so discomfited by this rationale that four times on this blog I have offered alternative answers to its underlying question, "Why are HBCUs Still Needed?" (See the "Related Notes" at the bottom of this post.)

Long-Term Trends
In my opinion, the fact that HBCUs are only three percent of the nation's institutions of higher learning is irrelevant. What matters is that the percentage of the nation's black college students who are enrolled in HBCUs has been trending downwards for decades to where it stands today, at around 9 percent. Not surprisingly, the HBCU share of associates and bachelors degrees conferred on black students is 2 percent and 16 percent, respectively. (See my recently updated "FAQs About HBCUs" cited in the "Related Links" at the bottom of this post)
  • HBCUs' small 2 percent share of associates degrees conferred on black students reflects the fact that only 14 of the 105 HBCUs are two year institutions.
  • The 16 percent share of bachelors degrees conferred by HBCUs on black students is smaller than the "almost 20 percent" claimed by the TMCF quotation cited at the beginning of this note. In other words, the HBCU share has declined since TMCF made its calculations
In my first attempt to address this issue, I expressed my profound appreciation for the intellectual freedom that I have enjoyed as a member of the faculty and staff of an HBCU. As per the closing lines of that first essay, I affirm that African American students, faculty, staff, and senior administrators at HBCUs are free to be any shade of Black they want to be ... :-)

Today this intellectual freedom empowers me to challenge the HBCU community to assume a new set of responsibilities. In the long run, justifying our continued existence on claims of larger-than-expected, but declining contributions to the number of blacks receiving various degrees is a highly visible dead end that will discourage support from government agencies, foundations, corporate partners, and our own alums. And declining support will accelerate further decline in our numbers. In other words, rationalizing our continued existence on the size of our enrollments and commencements sets up a self-defeating vicious circle. 

The Persistent Gap Between Equal Opportunity and Comparable Achievements
If things were going as well for black students in the mainstream, integrated non-HBCUs today as we had hoped when the Civil Rights Revolution banned segregation from the nation's schools and colleges back in the 1960s, by this time there would be no need for HBCUs.  Unfortunately, discouraging gaps persist between the promise of equal opportunity and the achievement of comparable results. Each year brings new reports that black students are performing substantially below white students and other groups across a broad array of metrics in all but the most elite non-HBCUs. In other words, progress towards the achievement of Dr. King's dream has stalled.

  • The first row of Table 1 (below) shows that in the Fall 2008 semester, the total number of black students who were enrolled in the thousands of accredited 4-year degree colleges throughout the nation semester was 1,449,041.
  • The first row also shows that the number of black students who were enrolled in 4-year degree programs at HBCUs in the Fall 2008 semester was 198,727. In other words the HBCU share of national black enrollments was 13.7 percent.
  • The second row of Table 1 shows that the number of bachelors degrees awarded to all black students by all 4-year accredited degree programs throughout the nation in 2009/2010 was 164,844.
  • The second row also shows that the number of bachelors degrees awarded to black students by HBCUs in 2009/2010 was 26,897. In other words, the HBCU share of bachelors degrees awarded to black students was 16.3 percent -- which, as shown in the third row, is 2.6 percent higher than the HBCU share of enrollments
  • If all other things were equal, we would have expected that the HBCU share of 4-year degrees awarded to black students would equal their share of black enrollments in 4-year programs. In other words, we would expected them to only have conferred 22,607 degrees, as shown in the fourth row.
  •  But as shown in the fifth row, HBCUs exceeded the expected number of degrees by 4,290, i.e., by 19 percent.
Caveat #1: Ideally the time frames would have been the same for enrollments and degrees; unfortunately, I was only able to find NCES black enrollments for 4-year programs at the national level in a report that contained Fall 2008 data. But it's reasonable to assume that the HBCU shares didn't rise or fall very much in one year.

Caveat #2: Given that the HBCU share of black enrollments has been steadily declining, the "excess" is probably somewhat smaller than the 19 percent calculated above. 
 Table 1. HBCU Share of Black 4-Year Enrollments and 4-Year Degrees
Time Frame
National Total
HBCU Total
HBCU Share
Fall 2008

Expected Degrees


Excess Degrees


That HBCUs exceeded the expected number of 4-year degrees conferred on black students is all the more remarkable because all other things are far from equal:
  • Most HBCUs accept a far higher percentage of financially disadvantaged students than most non-HBCUs (as measured by Pell grant eligibility)
  • Most HBCUs are not funded as well as most non-HBCUs
  • Most HBCUs accept a higher percentage of black students who have significant short-falls in their academic preparation than most non-HBCUs.
Unfortunately, there is little cause for celebrating this remarkable achievement in the context of the shrinking percentage of the nation's black students who are enrolled in HBCUs.

Today anyone who is genuinely concerned about black higher education must be asking: But what about the other 91 percent? What about the black students who don't attend HBCUs? ... and in a few years, what about the other 95 percent??? ... the other 98 percent??? ... the other 99 percent??? ... If present trends continue, sooner or later even the most ardent supporters of HBCUs will have to concede that we have become numerically irrelevant in the face of these persistent shortfalls in the academic achievements of the overwhelming majority of the nation's black students.

But the numerical size of the HBCU community is significant if and only if we continue to define our contributions in numerical terms. Do Harvard or Yale or Stanford justify their existence or their claims for support on their enrollments? Of course not. Indeed, few people know what their enrollments and completions are, and nobody cares. These eminent institutions justify their existence and their claims for the nation's continued support on the intellectual contributions they make to our society. And so should HBCUs.  

Keepers of the Dream
I hereby ask like-minded colleagues to join me in challenging all HBCUs to make it their collective mission to boldly assert collaborative leadership in the identification, development, and dissemination of revolutionary teaching methods that are far more effective than traditional methods for all black students in all of the nation's colleges and universities, not just for the students in their own HBCUs. Responding to this challenge will require the HBCU Community to provide national leadership in an education revolution comparable to the leadership provided by the Black Church in the Civil Rights Revolution half a century ago.

Existential Threats
This challenge will have to be met in the face of existential threats: the prolonged aftermath of the Great Recession and the coming flash floods of disruptive innovations in higher education.

There is no upside to the Great Recession. This economic catastrophe has devalued the resources of the primary supporters of HBCUs: 
By fortunate contrast, the pending disruptive innovations in eLearning technologies will also provide HBCUs with powerful opportunities for survival and success. 
  • Some pundits have characterized these disruptions as a giant tidal wave. (For example, see David Brooks, "The Campus Tsunami" in NY Times, 5/3/12.) I reject this misleading metaphor because tidal waves come from off-shore, way out there somewhere. When we see the video warnings on TV, we seek higher ground. But how many of us know what to do when we we receive flash flood warnings on our smartphones? Inconvenient, but seemingly non-threatening downpours suddenly cause overflowing creeks  and streams to wash roads and bridges away. We get caught because we don't know or can't see where the creeks and streams are located ... until it's too late ... :-(
By themselves the recent torrents of MOOCs (massive open online courses) offered by elite universities are exciting to contemplate, but pose no significant threat to the day-to-day operations of other colleges and universities. But when MOOCs are plugged into competency-based programs that enable students to receive credit towards degrees and/or when MOOCs provide the online components of flipped classrooms, they will quickly provide substantial recruiting, retention, and graduation advantages to colleges and universities that have competency-based programs and flipped classrooms, but will impose comparably substantial handicaps on those that don't.

Two thoughts in closing:
  • The MOOC-competency-flipped-class flash floods are just the beginning. We should expect more powerful disruptions throughout the coming decades as the IT revolution that has enhanced the productivity of just about every other sector of modern society finally gains traction in its academic birthplace.
  • The not-so-secret secret of HBCU success has been the TLC (tender loving care) that HBCUs have has lavished on their students. Unfortunately, traditional TLC is expensive because it's labor intensive and does not scale. In times past it took a lot of time for a few dedicated instructors and a few dedicated staffers to reach a few students. But the neat thing about some of the most disruptive apps that are now raining down on academe is their "high tech/high touch" ==> they can empower a few dedicated instructors and staffers to identify and attend to the unique needs of many students.
Related Notes:

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