Author: Marybeth Gasman
This past week, I gave a talk at the North Carolina Minority Economic Development Institute and I was asked to answer the following question: "Which HBCUs will survive and why?" Based on my research and work with HBCUs over the past 15 years, here is my response:
Those HBCUs that will survive in the 21st century are those:
1. .... that have an institutional niche -- a strength -- something that makes them stand out. Strong programs draw students, funders, and alumni support.
2. .... that are led by bold leaders with brave sensibilities.
3. .... with leaders that make decisions based on data -- data at the institutional level as well as at the state and federal level.
4. .... with presidents that speak out on national higher education issues, especially those that directly influence HBCUs.
5. .... that look closely at their retention and graduation rates and if they don't see change and improvement, they make immediate change.
6. .... that learn to 'manage up' in terms of their funder relationships. If you get funding, you have to make sure that you keep the funder informed about your use of the money.
7. .... that diversify their student body. Although there is resistance on the part of some leaders and alumni to diversification, there's no other choice given increased access for African Americans at majority institutions and the growing Asian and Latino populations. Thriving, in most cases, depends on aggressively reaching out to all students.
8. .... with leaders who remember to respect faculty and faculty input. Happy faculty = happy students.
9. .... that improve student services and the treatment of students as they move through the various student services venues on campus. Satisfied students make happy alumni that give back to the institution.
10. .... with leaders that roll up their sleeves and work with all entities on campus. HBCU presidents cannot afford to get caught up in titles and the trappings of these titles -- actually no president should.
11. .... that choose leaders with diverse experiences and perspectives. These leaders need to be chosen because they bring strength to the institution, not merely because they have worked at HBCUs in the past. Safe leaders don't move institutions to forward -- bold leaders do.
12. .... that take alumni giving seriously and fully engage their alumni on all levels.
13. .... that learn to cultivate the media at all levels, telling their institutional story regularly.
14. .... with presidents that get excited about fundraising and work as a team with their fundraising staff.
15. .... those HBCUs that honor their roots by reaching out to the surrounding community, uplifting it and measuring their interaction and contributions to it.
Whereas I applaud your efforts and presentation, HBCUs are more than ever challanged as why they should exist in the first place. My colleague and friend, Dr. Earl Richardson, President Emeritis, Morgan State University, Dr. Mary Evens-Sias, President, Kentuck State University and others went before Congress to make the case as to why HBCUs .http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pzsz2yiW4-8
However, whether we feel there is a valid reason as to why HBCUs as they benefit all races, religons and national origins, there are a number of reasons why we will see the dissapearence of a substanstial number of this proud and historical institutions over the next ten years.
Once a beacon of hope for thousands of Black students denied access to higher education by predominantly White institutions, historically Black colleges and universities have educated generations of Black scientists, doctors, lawyers, educators and social activists. But today, these institutions face serious challenges. Questions of relevance have reached a fever pitch as today’s Black colleges' work to address declining enrollment, low graduation rates and financial instability. Despite the challenges, however, HBCUs for many Black students – and others – remain the last best hope of succeeding in the higher education arena. As the age-old debate for and against Black colleges' rages on, We've identified five threats facing HBCUs and five opportunities that could define their futures.
1. Prolonged Recession, Funding and Development Issues: When traditionally White institutions catch a cold, HBCUs catch pneumonia. Such is the case with the contagious economic virus that all of higher education is exposed to. HBCUs, like many others in the higher education sector, rely on student tuition dollars, government programs, corporate donations and foundation giving to sustain their institutions. All of these are unreliable revenue sources that point to the need for a stable income source typically found in a sustainable endowment.
The peril of weak endowments and low alumni giving is consequential in the economic environment. HBCU endowment information is hard to come by. Just five schools responded to the National Association of College and University Business Officers Endowment Survey. For those that responded, the average endowment market value was $244.7 million, compared with an average of $521.9 million for all non-Black institutions. The proposed sale of portions of Fisk University’s prized art collection donated by Georgia O’Keefe to raise much-needed cash and the proposal by the Georgia state Legislature to merge financially troubled Savannah State and Armstrong Atlantic State Universities to cut costs illustrate the financial volatility impacting many Black colleges.
2. Getting Them and Keeping Them: HBCUs provide a supportive environment where Black students thrive, but a 2006 Ed Sector report showed that just 37.9 percent of Black students attending HBCUs earn an undergraduate degree within six years, 4 percentage points lower than the national college graduation rate for Black students and 7 points lower than the overall graduation rates of predominantly White institutions. The graduation disparity could be a lot worse given the economic and educational disadvantages that often accompany these students, the vast majority of whom qualify for federal Pell Grants. But in a society that is becoming less tolerant of excuses, HBCUs will have to undertake some creative means of addressing the retention problem.
3. New Competition: For-profit institutions have become destination institutions for many Black and Hispanic students. A disproportionate percentage of degrees from proprietary colleges go to Black and Hispanic graduates. In this year’s Diverse Top 100, the University of Phoenix “online campus” overtook Florida A&M and Howard universities as the No. 1 producer of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans. While Black students earned 8.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the United States in 2005, they accounted for 15 percent of the degrees conferred by proprietary institutions, according to data in the National Center for Education Statistics report, “Postsecondary Institutions in the United States.”
4. Conservative Ethos/Constricting Campus Culture: Many news accounts have portrayed HBCUs as conservative, traditional institutions that are led by well-intentioned disciplinarians. While the accuracy of such accounts may be dubious, they raise warning points. The value of thoughtful reviews of HBCU campus climates and environments for faculty and students cannot be underestimated. Wholesome and welcoming environments at HBCUs were the stock of legends and huge selling points in attracting students and faculty. Today, many Black institutions continue to impose conservative policies that have long since lost their appeal, such as setting curfews, meddling in student media and limiting support for faculty research and expression.
5. Fear of Impending Doom: Black institutions on the brink of closure, such as Morris Brown, and those facing accreditation woes, such as Paul Quinn, continue to make headlines. As one account after another emerges, the fear of self-fulfilling prophecies usurps reality. But only a relatively small number of these schools have suffered irreparable damage. While some have had negative encounters with accreditation agencies, the vast majority have survived and often thrived. Unfortunately, these incidents can serve to erode enrollment and morale while also giving opponents ammunition to question HBCUs relevance in this so-called ‘post-racial’ era.
Safe Place: At the 20th-anniversary luncheon of this publication in 2004, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole challenged a large gathering of Black educators to seriously consider how difficult it would be today to build a network of over 100 colleges dedicated to primarily educating African-American students. Everyone conceded that it would be nearly impossible. HBCUs provide refuge for Black students to define their place and identity in American society. Instead of being vehicles for diversity as “underrepresented minorities” at majority schools, Black students are simply students at HBCUs. These schools serve as sources of pride and affirmation for thousands of alumni, friends and supporters from around the world. At a time when the threat of marginalization looms large in the psyche of many African-Americans, these schools are strategically positioned to become the focal point of the African-American community in many new and important ways.
Decoders of Disparities: HBCUs have the propensity to lead higher education in disparity research. Research that documents racial and ethnic health disparities can play a key role in understanding and eliminating such disparities. The major funding organizations, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, have struggled for decades in trying to get at the root causes of racial disparities. A key player could and should be HBCUs. Take the qualified teacher disparity that is closely tied to the achievement gap: Even a cursory review of the statistics indicates that HBCUs are the nation’s premier institutions for graduating Black teachers. Yet these programs continue to be underfunded at the state and federal level.
Specialty Programs: HBCUs can be the pipeline for science, technology, engineering, mathematics and teacher education, considering they already do the bulk of the work. While composing about 3 percent of the nation’s 3,688 institutions of higher learning, the 103 HBCUs annually produce 23 percent of African-American bachelor’s degree and 13 percent of all master’s degree recipients, according to recent statistics. Spellman and Bennett colleges produce over half of the nation’s Black women who go on to earn doctorates in all science fields; Xavier University ranks No. 1 nationally in sending African-Americans to medical school. HBCUs that develop specialty programs can cement their place in the higher education arena by becoming the go-to institutions for in-demand talent.
Access: HBCUs can expand educational access and opportunity to underserved populations, particularly Hispanics. Additionally, HBCUs should tap into the market of students who start out at community colleges. HBCUs, which disproportionately serve students from low-income communities of color, can provide greater access to other underserved students in the Hispanic community. St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, founded in 1898 by the Episcopal Church as a sewing school for Black girls, and has evolved into a comprehensive public community college with a for-credit enrollment exceeding 10,000. Hispanics make up the largest ethnic group on campus, and St. Philip’s, part of the Alamo Community Colleges District, is now the only college to be federally designated as both a historically Black college and a Hispanic-serving institution. The missions of Black colleges must evolve to serve a larger population of students.
Global Influence: HBCU students and faculty continue to carry the torch of academic excellence to other countries, building linkages throughout the African Diaspora and expanding the global impact of Black institutions. Florida A&M University President James Ammons signed an agreement with a Canadian organization that will allow FAMU students to intern in Cairo, Egypt. Howard University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders served communities in Kenya and Brazil this year. Spellman students helped to build a library for the 10,000 Girls program in Senegal.