Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Digital Learning Lab's HBCU Manifesto

Last updated: Monday 2/19/15

This manifesto poses some "inconvenient" answers to "inconvenient" questions.

Question 1. Why Are HBCUs still needed?

Answer 1a ...  All 107 HBCUs, like all colleges and universities, will always be needed by their local stakeholders, i.e., by their students, faculty, staff, administrators, alums, etc. Currently enrolled students need their HBCUs in order to complete their graduation requirements; faculty, staff, and administrators need their jobs; alums need their alma maters as references for jobs and for admission to other higher ed programs; and local communities need their HBCU contributions to the local economy.

Answer 1b ...  The nation as a whole still needs some HBCUs because its mainstream institutions of higher learning have not fulfilled the challenge of Dr. King's Dream. Fifty years after the historic success of the Civil Rights Revolution, the gaps between the academic performance of black students and white students and between black students and Asian American students at all but the most elite U.S. colleges and universities remain unacceptably large and are not closing fast enough, if at all.  Nor is there reason for confidence that, left to their own devices, mainstream institutions will develop more effective learning environments for their black students in the foreseeable future.

-- All HBCUs played historic roles before the Civil Rights Revolution by providing the only opportunities for higher education for the vast majority of the nation's black students.

-- Some HBCUs will continue to play historic roles in the coming decades by becoming national centers for the identification, development, and dissemination of teaching innovations that can sustain the more effective learning environments that are desperately needed by the rising percentages -- 91%, 92%, 93% -- of the nation's black students who are enrolled in the nation's mainstream institutions.

-- However, HBCUs that do not embrace this larger national purpose will, like the vast majority of other U.S. institutions of higher learning, only be needed by their local stakeholders.  In other words, their significance will be defined by their success or failure as local institutions.

Question 2. Do HBCUs still need apologists?
Answer ... No.

"HBCU Apologists" tend to lump all HBCUs into one basket, then ask for continued support from "everyone" for "all" HBCUs, regardless of their individual performance records. But the facts are indisputable and can no longer be ignored, especially in the context of the continuing failure of the nation's mainstream institutions to provide effective learning opportunities for the vast majority of the nation's black students.
  • All HBCUs are not the same. They come in a wide variety of types and sizes, and their range of performance varies widely on important metrics. 
  • In their zeal to downplay the disappointing performance of the majority of HBCUs on some important metrics, the "HBCU Apologists" tend to ignore the excellent performance of a minority of HBCUs on those same metrics. By not celebrating the achievements of the high performers, they miss the opportunity to discover the secrets of their success. Indeed, the high performers are usually "explained" by assumptions that they are better funded. Therefore more money for all will lead to better performance by all.
  • Unfortunately in the aftermath of the Great Recession, it's highly unlikely that all HBCUs will receive substantially greater financial support from any source within the foreseeable future.
  • But fortunately, the "more money cures all" paradigm collapses in the face of the failure of the most affluent HBCUs to be the best, second best, or even third best performers on all important metrics; and by the extraordinary success of some modestly funded HBCUs. In other words, some HBCUs are working smarter than others; their faculty, staff, and administrative leaders are making more productive use of the limited resources at their disposal.
  • Therefore "HBCU Apologists" are no longer needed (if they ever were). Some HBCUs have accomplished truly impressive achievements that need no apology, achievements that can withstand the closest critical scrutiny.

    What the nation needs now are national centers of innovation that could help us systematically identify the HBCUs that were providing more effective learning experiences for their black students than should be expected, given their limited funds, personnel, and other resources.
    The centers' activities would be supported by grants and contracts from foundations, government agencies, and corporations. High performing HBCUs would make the most credible centers. (Note: High performing Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) having large black enrollments would also be credible.)
  • The centers would figure out why the high performing HBCUs were more successful. They would engage the high performers in discussions to determine the specific things that the higher performing minority were doing that were different from what other HBCUs (and the vast majority of non-HBCUs) were doing. Both of these processes -- identifying the high performers and analyzing the initiatives that contributed to their success -- would be data-driven. Boring as it may be to some, this discourse would be driven by statistical analysis

    The wealth of data already available from the U.S. Department of Education, especially its IPEDs Website, and from other federal agencies, like the National Science Foundation, would facilitate the identification of the leading performers. However, the documentation of what these HBCUs really did and the factors that had the largest impact on the outcomes of their initiatives would require carefully designed
    case studies, case studies that will be more informed by statistical analysis of HBCU operational data than by anecdotes or personal opinions.
  • The centers would also need to organize programs to disseminate the "best practices", i.e, to encourage other HBCUs and mainstream institutions to adopt them (with appropriate local modifications). The centers need not be the original developers of the innovations that they disseminated.
  • Finally, we should anticipate that in years to come, the innovations that will make the biggest contributions to the success of the most effective HBCUs will be based on cost-effective applications of information technology, i.e., on changes that are now called "disruptive innovations."
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