Nowadays over ninety percent of Black college students are enrolled in non-HBCUs, or Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) as some people call them. The Black Lives Matter movement has recently engaged in numerous protests on non-HBCU campuses against the persistence of racism at these institutions, mostly in the form of micro aggressions. In my opinion most of these protests have missed the mark.
Micro aggressions are, by definition, offensive but tolerable slights. They are not threats to life and limb as was true for the violence inflicted on Blacks before racial discrimination was outlawed, and is still true today for Black residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods who are routinely intimidated, beaten, and sometimes killed by rogue police.
The greatest harm that campus micro aggressions inflict on their victims is distraction. They distract Black students from their primary functions and obligations as students, i.e., they distract Black students from their studies. Such distractions have the greatest negative impact on students enrolled in the most difficult courses, e.g., STEM.
- In principle, Black students should be able to ignore these distractions; but this requires a maturity that cannot be expected from most college age students of any race or ethnicity. No one should be surprised to learn that Black students underperform White students at all but the most elite non-HBCUs. To be specific, Black 6-year graduation rates at most non-HBCUs range from 10 percent to more than 30 percent below the 6-year graduation rates of their White peers.
- Now consider the nation's 100 plus HBCUs. The vast majority are over 70 percent Black by choice: many Black students apply to HBCUs, whereas relatively few White students apply. How well do Black students perform in difficult STEM courses at HBCUs? Much better than Black students at non-HBCUs -- except at wealthy, elite non-HBCUs that aggressively recruit the most visible segments of the Black community's Talented Tenth, i.e., Black students whose transcripts demonstrate the highest academic aptitudes and skills.
- Should we conclude that Black students at most non-HBCUs underperform because of persistent racism, whereas Black students at HBCUs do better because of the absence of racism? Hardly. It's not just the absence of the negative factor of racism that helps Black students at HBCUs; and it not just the presence of this negative that hinders Black students at non-HBCUs.
- I suggest that HBCUs provide five positive factors that help their Black students, positive factors that are largely absent from most non-HBCUs ==> dense, overlapping networks of Black peers (fellow students), tutors, mentors, role models ... and "Black" faculty and support staff. Note that I have placed the last "Black" in quotes. Although most instructors at HBCUs are Black, HBCUs employ large cadres of non-Black faculty, especially in STEM. Nevertheless these non-Black faculty are also "Black" in the sense that they are able to assure their students that their evaluations only reflect the quality of the students' academic performance and never relate to the color of their students' skin. Needless to say, non-Black faculty who don't provide this assurance don't last very long at HBCUs.
- These overlapping networks help Black students at HBCUs overcome shortfalls in fundamental academic skills that were due to inferior prior educational opportunities. They also encourage Black students to aspire to become scientists and engineers because the Black students can see that they "look like" the Black scientists and engineers among the HBCU faculty, alums, and other high achieving Blacks about whose existence HBCUs make their students aware.
- The vast majority of non-HBCUs cannot provide these positive networks because they don't employ enough Black faculty because there aren't enough qualified Black faculty to go around. This legacy of the extreme disadvantages imposed on Black America by centuries of slavery and involuntary segregation is a shortage that is likely to persist for many decades to come.
The preceding paragraphs sound like a strong argument for encouraging most Black students to enroll in self-segregated HBCUs. Unfortunately the argument breaks down because most HBCUs are endangered institutions for the same reasons that many non-HBCUs are endangered:
- Most HBCUs are endangered because they adhere to traditional labor-intensive, face-to-face teaching and networking methods that don't scale; so they can't cover rising costs by assigning larger student loads to their instructors.
- HBCUs are endangered because they don't have large incomes from large endowments, substantial royalties from copyrights and patents, and enough wealthy alums who could donate the funds required to cover their annual financial shortfalls.
- And public HBCUs are endangered because they don't have access to enough powerful patrons in the political establishment who could provide increased public funds to cover HBCUs' financial shortfalls or merely safeguard their current levels of support from budget cutters and/or proposals to merge the HBCUs with other financially stressed public institutions.
Related notes on this blog: