"The plural of anecdote is not data."
This witty, incisive aphorism from an article that was published by Inside Higher Education a few weeks ago was nagging me last night as I made my final mental preparations for writing this, the third segment of my discussion this morning.
Being the unabashed data phreak that I am, I was still troubled by my lack of systematic data to support my forty years of careful reading and participant observation as a member of the tenured faculty and senior staff of one of the nation's leading HBCUs. But when I opened this morning's issue of Inside Higher Ed, another aphorism rang out as loudly as a happy church bell, "Fortune favors the prepared mind!!!" Why? Because, this morning's issue reported the publication of the kind of systematic data that I had been missing ... :-)
F. Gallup poll
Jake New's article, "Positive News for HBCUs", reports the results of a recent two year survey conducted by Gallup and Purdue University of Black alumni who graduate between 1940 and 2011 that found that:
- 55 percent of Black alumni who attended HBCUs felt "strongly" that their alma maters had prepared them well for life outside of college compared to less than 30 percent of Black alumni who had attended non-HBCUs.
- 51 percent of Black alumni who attended HBCUs said they were "thriving in financial well being" compared to only 29 percent of Black alumni of non-HBCUs
- About half of the Black alumni of HBCUs said their alma mater was the "perfect" school for them compared to only 34 percent of Black alumni from non-HBCUs
- Nearly half of the Black alums of HBCU said they "couldn't "imagine a world without " their alma maters compared to 25 percent of Black alums from non-HBCUs.
- 42 percent of Black alums of HBCUs said they had had mentors who had "encouraged" them to "pursue my goals and dreams" compared to only 23 percent of the Black alums of non-HBCUs
- 58 percent of Black alums of HBCUs said "My professors at My University cared about me as a person" compared to only 25 percent of the Black alums of non-HBCUs.
When considering the findings of the Gallup-Purdue poll, I suggest that readers keep the following limitations in mind:
- HBCUs are not perfect. Although a substantially larger percentage of Black alums of HBCUs reported strong positive feelings about their alma maters, all of these results were below 60 percent. In other words at least 40 percent of Black alums of HBCUs did not share such strong positive feelings
- The poll did not disaggregate its findings into time frames. Its respondents graduated between 1940 and 2011. Therefore the poll lumped responses from alums who graduated when Blacks were legally denied admission to many non-HBCUs (1940 to 1965) with responses during desegregation (1966 to 2000) with responses from contemporaries (2001 to 2011). The results would have been more compelling had they found that the HBCU vs non-HBCU gaps persisted at comparably high levels in all three time frames
- Given that HBCUs graduate a disproportionate share of Black alums who obtain bachelors degrees and/or doctorates in STEM, it's likely that the gaps in positive sentiments would have been even wider had the survey been confined to STEM majors
G. HBCU Networks
When Black students enroll in HBCUs, most of them become enmeshed in dense, overlapping networks of mostly Black peers, tutors, mentors, and role models that reinforce each other's positive impact. The networks are dense because they involve a high percentage of an HBCU's students, faculty, and support staff. The networks overlap because some people play multiple roles. And the networks reinforce each other because the multi-role members convey the same positive messages in each of their roles. At non-HBCUs, comparable networks are much weaker or non-existent.
- Peers -- Black students at non-HBCUs may find themselves in STEM classes where there are few, if any, other Black students, especially in advanced courses. So they may doubt their own capabilities and wonder if they are just "affirmative action imposters" who shouldn't be there ... or they may underperform on tests because of "stereotype threat". Not so at HBCUs where "everybody" is Black.
- Tutors -- Black students at non-HBCUs may be reluctant to admit that they need help in a course, again for fear being viewed as "affirmative action imposters". Not so at HBCUs where Black students can turn to smarter Black students in their own classes or Black students in more advanced classes (the best tutors) or to Black faculty or to non-Black faculty whose employment by the HBCU provides some assurance that they are not the kind of people who misjudge Black students because of the color of their skin.
- Mentors -- The Gallup-Purdue poll noted that almost twice as high a percentage of Black alums of HBCUs said they had supportive mentors than Black alums of non-HBCUs. This is hardly surprising given that, all other things being equal (a) most Black students would prefer Black mentors, and (b) there are far more Black faculty at HBCUs than at non-HBCUs and a higher percentage of non-Black faculty who won't misjudge Black students. Not so obvious, however, is the fact that Black support staff at HBCUs also play very active roles as mentors, especially in helping students navigate the complex maze of red tape and inconsistent graduation requirements that still afflict too many colleges and universities.
- Role Models -- Of course, having more Black faculty than non-HBCUs enables HBCUs to provide more Black role models in STEM for their Black students. But not so obvious is the fact that HBCUs make their students more aware of their successful Black alums than do non-HBCUs because HBCUs celebrate the achievements of all of their Black alums, whereas non-HBCUs only celebrate the achievements of their most successful Black alums ... if at all. This follows from HBCUs' recognition that Black History is created by Black achievers, not just in February, but twelve months a year, anywhere and everywhere. So HBCUs make their STEM students aware of Black high achievers in STEM no matter what schools those high achievers attended because the lesson is the same, "If that Black person can do it, so can you."
All of this is fine for the less than 10 percent of Black college students who attend HBCUs today. But what about the more than 90 percent who attend non-HBCUs? Can the dense, overlapping supportive networks that sustain the continuing relevance of HBCUs in STEM be developed for non-HBCUs? My answer is yes, absolutely, via the development and implementation of appropriate new technologies.