A few years ago, the sitcom A Different World–the highly rated spinoff of The Cosby Show–offered millions of viewers worldwide their first glimpse into black college life. But for generations of African Americans, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been a community staple, providing the only real option for a quality education. The phenomenal success of these institutions is proof-positive that they have lived up to their mission.
“Our schools disproportionately produce more black talent than mainstream institutions,” says William H. Gray III, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. The numbers speak for themselves: according to a 1994 survey, HBCUs account for only 16% of the nation’s black college student population, but they produce 30% of all black graduates.
In addition, HBCU undergraduates account for half of all blacks with master’s degrees and 45% of African Americans who hold corporate positions of vice president or higher. “Any institution with the ability to produce those numbers is worth supporting and strengthening,” asserts Gray.
While alliances with private sector businesses and the opportunities they offer–such as student internships and student exchange/study-abroad programs–have been limited, traditional support for HBCUs has come in the form of charitable donations and scholarship gifts. However, in recent years, HBCUs have become more than just tax write-offs for some in corporate America.
“The economic environment dictates that companies aren’t going to throw funds at any school and not expect something in return,” says Lucy Reuben, Ph.D., dean of South Carolina State University’s School of Business and BE Board of Economists member. “When all is said and done, they’ll be looking to get their money back in human or intellectual capital,” she says.
To meet this demand, partnerships are becoming increasingly popular between HBCUs and some of the nation’s top corporations, as well as nonprofit organizations and federal agencies. “Companies are beginning to see the real value of these schools,” says Dierdre Francis-Dickerson, manager of strategic relations at Nissan Motor Corp. in Gardena, California. “Their graduates represent Future economic wealth, and corporations need to pay attention to them,” she says.
Corporations know that institutions and their graduates are only as good as their professors and curricula. By training HBCU faculty and providing state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, these companies help to strengthen the schools from the ground up. These efforts make the schools more attractive to top instructors, who in turn produce graduates who can compete in the 21st century business world.
Why this sudden interest in developing black colleges and universities? Corporate leaders know that if they expect to compete in the global marketplace, they must retain the nation’s top scholars–including African Americans.
BACK TO THE CHALKBOARD
Since 1989, the annual Nissan-HBCU Summer Institute has been assembling business executives, 25 HBCU undergraduate B-school faculty and other scholars for a week-long symposium. “Professors learn how to apply their theoretical expertise to real-world business problems,” says Ardie Ivie, Ed.D., institute director, “and they go back to their classrooms and supplement textbook information with reality-based material to form a more well-rounded, useful curriculum.”
Since attending the institute