The HBCU Debate: Are Black Colleges & Universities Still Needed?

Started as a response to racism and starved of financial support, HBCUs have to do more with less

 

Are students better off having professors who look like them? (Source: Thinkstock)

In spite of the nurturing HBCUs provide their students, their graduation rates are lower (about 38%) than that of Black students who attend traditionally White schools (about 46%). But this may be more a reflection of the student body HBCUs serve, one that is typically less affluent (65% of HBCU students are eligible for Pell Grants), often less prepared academically, and often first generation college students. And HBCUs typically have tiny endowments; others struggle with debt. So obtaining resources that could help struggling students avoid dropping out isn’t always an option.

Nelms points out, however, that the variation among HBCUs is actually greater than that between HBCUs and traditionally White institutions. Spelman College, for example, has an outstanding graduation rate of 80%—one of the highest in the nation—with 40% of its students Pell Grant eligible.

But Paul Bryant, Interim Vice President for Enrollment Management and Retention at Grambling, says the challenges of small endowments aren’t new. “We’ve never had the resources White institutions had, but we never used that as an excuse for not succeeding. We’ve always served students that represented a range of ability, but your situation cannot dictate your success.” Bryant says that historically the faculty and staff at Black schools taught students to be the best intellectually and socially, that they had high expectations and a vested interest in seeing them graduate. Now, he says, that’s no longer the case.

“Today’s students are not graduating, they’re not persevering academically, and they’re not competitive,” Bryant says. “They’re too easily distracted, they lack a clear understanding of why they’re there, they lack drive, and they have no connection to their own vision and no realistic idea of what their careers require.”

Bryant says many of his students don’t really value education or academic success, and that the highest GPAs are often earned by Caribbean, African, and Asian students. (Asians make up 1% of students at HBCUs, according to DiverseEducation.com.) He also says the atmosphere at predominantly White schools is different. “More students are serious, so as a result there’s a kind of positive peer pressure.” At HBCUs, he says, the diversity within the Black community is not addressed. “We’re not all the same, but this isn’t acknowledged.”

Some of the problems Bryant laments aren’t unique to HBCUs, however. Regarding the challenges, someone wrote online:

  • Replace HBCU with small, liberal arts college. Rinse and repeat. Replace small, liberal arts college with public flagship research institution. Rinse and repeat. Replace public flagship research institution with private research university. Rinse and repeat.

Is the writer a dyspeptic cynic? Or just recognizing that all may not be well in all institutions of higher learning in the U.S.? The nation’s overall six-year college graduation rate, 56% according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, isn’t exactly impressive. And those who do graduate may not have actually learned very much. According to a new book, Academically Adrift, students make stronger gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills if they are required to do substantial work, such as at least 20 pages of writing in a semester course, and more than 40 pages of reading a week in a semester course. Faculty interaction, an area in which HBCUs excel, was also found to be associated with greater gains in student learning.

According to a report released in December, “The Educational Effectiveness of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” HBCUs play a significant role in preparing their students for success. The graduates of certain HBCUs, for example, Xavier University of Louisiana, Spelman, and Morehouse, were successfully admitted to “graduate, medical, engineering, law schools … in percentages … equaling or exceeding those of African American students that attended” traditionally White schools. The report also noted strengths unique to HBCUs: faculty role models and their dedication to teaching, a socially supportive environment and greater interaction with faculty, an emphasis on career exploration and leadership, and their greater success in graduating higher numbers of Black STEM majors.

The report noted, however, that from the 1970s to the 1990s, significant changes in the results of attending an HBCU had occurred. In the 1970s, matriculating at an HBCU was associated with higher wages and a greater chance of graduation, compared with attending a predominantly White school. By the 1990s, however, there was a 20% decline in the relative wages of HBCU grads compared with Black students who graduated from non-HBCUs, although SAT scores of students accepted into HBCUs had also risen during that same period.

President Obama has called for all Americans who graduate high school to be prepared for college or one year of job training so that we as a nation can compete globally. Nelms says that providing support for HBCUs, which have never received equal funding, must be part of that mandate. At NCCU, students are assigned academic advisers who reach out to students as a problem is developing—not afterwards. Faculty learning communities, housing freshmen and sophomores separately while they adjust to college life, and immersing them in an academic culture are all part of an overall strategy to support student success, says Nelms. “It’s not episodic.”

Are HBCUs for every Black student? “Black students should consider HBCUs, but like everyone else, they should go to schools where their needs will be met,” Nelms advises. Going to college with a clear idea of what you hope to get out of it helps, too. Sayers said she approached Grambling with a “severe open-mindedness” and a determination to have a “university experience like no other.”

Did you attend an HBCU or a traditionally White institution? What do you think of your experience? Are HBCUs still relevant, or no longer necessary? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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