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HBCUs: Past, Present, & Future

October 8, 2007

I do not read U.S. News & World Report very often, so consequently I cannot remember how I came across this article. It’s a fantastic composition on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), containing a fair amount of information on their history, present status, and statistics.

Titled “The Crossroads of History: America’s Best Black Colleges: Like other schools, they too now must compete for students,” the September 27 piece is authored by Diane Cole. Here are some excerpts from the piece, interspersed with commentary (please go to the link for the full, uninterrupted narrative):

– “Tryan McMickens recalls the ‘huge blow’ he felt when, as one of only a few dozen African-American students at a large, predominantly white public high school in suburban Atlanta, he heard his favorite teacher advise him not to even consider applying to a historically black college. ‘She told me those schools would not be the best fit for me because those schools are not the best schools,’ he says.
– “His experience at Tuskegee University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in December 2005, proved her wrong on both counts. ‘While I was there I found a deep passion for research and for working in higher education,’ says McMickens, now a doctoral student in higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘To be around students [at Tuskegee] who look like you and who are ambitious and who set these tremendous goals was encouraging and empowering,’ he says.

TL: This is a fantastic opening. His “favorite teacher” advises him not to go—clearly with McMicken’s interest (namely, excellence) at heart. How many of us go against our trusted mentors? And to attend the institution founded by Booker T. Washington, a father of black higher education. I read somewhere that a great number of African Americans who end up with masters or doctoral degrees end up working in education institutions. In this way McMicken’s story is somewhat typical.

– “Once pretty much the only option for black students seeking higher education, black colleges today increasingly have to compete with other institutions for prize pupils. Prospective students, like the schools themselves, are struggling with how to weigh the unique traditions and culture that black colleges offer against the financial resources and elite rankings of white campuses.”

TL: In many ways this is where the federal government’s failure to keep pace in terms of Pell Grants might be hurting the most.

– “In 1965, the federal government created a ‘historically black colleges and university’ designation to support about 100 schools located mostly in the South and a handful of other nearby states that were founded with the mission of educating black Americans in the years just before and in the decades following the Civil War. (Founded by a Quaker in 1837, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania is the oldest.) Then came the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and the subsequent civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Today, most majority white institutions are seeking to increase the diversity of their student body by actively recruiting racial minority students. That has forced black colleges to compete to attract their traditional student base.”

TL: Clearly an unintended consequence of broader societal changes. But it looks like HBCUs will have to do what historic women’s colleges did: adapt or die.

– “Out of the 817 black American high school students who won National Achievement Scholarships in 2006, Harvard enrolled the most, with 68. Among black colleges, Howard University claimed the largest number, with just 19, and Morehouse and Spelman each only attracted six.”

TL: That’s just an amazing disparity. I would’ve never guessed the difference was that high.

– “Years of chronic underfunding (both before and after desegregation) have placed some HBCUs in severe financial straits, in some cases leading to accreditation questions. When University of Pennsylvania education Prof. Marybeth Gasman was researching her book, Envisioning Black Colleges[: A History of the United Negro College Fund], she said, she could actually see the toll that maintenance delays had taken on some campuses in the form of historic buildings that were ‘falling apart’ and archival papers ‘crumbling.’ “

TL: Professor Gasman is being a little melodramatic here (purposely, I suspect), or is unaware of the mechanics of paper decomposition. Papers produced from the late nineteenth century (and onward) were often made with acid. That acid remains in the paper and hastens its decomposition. Paper best suited for archival storage is made without acid. I ran into a lot of crumbling letters when I researched the Mortimer J. Adler Papers, and 90 percent of his papers were housed at the reasonably well-funded University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center.

– “United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael Lomax, a graduate of Morehouse College and former president of Dillard University, says these conditions do not affect all HBCUs. ‘American higher education is multi-tiered, and so are black colleges,’ he says, noting the range in black colleges from small liberal arts colleges to larger research universities, public and private. ‘Some small schools are challenged, just as small colleges are across the board,’ Lomax says. But ‘Morehouse, Spelman, Hampton, among others, are stronger than they have ever been.’ “

TL: I applaud Mr. Lomax’s honesty. He could’ve exaggerated conditions for sympathy money—he had the opportunity, but he didn’t. This kind of honesty is not always the norm in higher education when matters of money are involved.

– “Graduation rates also have been a challenge for black colleges. Many students who attend HBCUs come from low-income families. These students are at risk of dropping out not for academic reasons but simply because they do not have the money to continue.”

TL: I understand the desire to generate sympathy for the dropouts. But, poor families of all colors also usually come from areas where public schooling was underfunded. Any college who accepts discernible numbers from that population must have remedial programs correlated to those numbers. Even community colleges experience higher dropouts because of the lack of fundamental skills among applicants.

– But, “Just add the endowments of all 103 HBCUs together, says Johnnetta Cole, president emerita of Spelman College in Atlanta and Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. Then compare that total, which comes to less than $2 billion, with the approximately $35 billion that Harvard alone claims. And yet, although HBCUs constitute only 3 percent of American higher education institutions, they graduate about 24 percent of all black college students.”

TL: Again, this is an amazing disparity in money. This is clearly a kind of de facto racism. But continually comparing your situation to Harvard loses it’s power. Think of how many middle-of-the-road and smaller “white” schools have numbers that don’t compare to Harvard.

– “The students black colleges enroll may not have had the opportunity to attend college otherwise, says Michigan State University education Prof. James Minor. As a prospective college student, Minor was rejected by every school he applied to in his home state of Michigan but was accepted at Jackson State University in Mississippi, where he thrived. In this way, HBCUs are ‘engines of social mobility, for minority students, says Lomax of the United Negro College Fund. Comments Dwayne Ashley, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund: ‘I shudder to think what would happen to those young men and women who would not have the opportunity to pursue their full potential. It would be a loss to the American economic fabric.’ “

TL: The more I hear from Lomax, the more respect I have for him.

– “Florida A&M University in Tallahassee—the largest single-campus HBCU, with more than 11,000 students—is at work turning around a different set of problems. The week before FAMU’s new president, James Ammons, assumed his duties in July, the university’s accreditation was put on a probationary status as a result of mismanagement issues stemming from previous administrations. ‘Without a doubt, we are going to have to get our house in order from an audit standpoint,’ he says. Meanwhile, he emphasizes that FAMU has not lost its accreditation and will present a ‘compelling case’ to remove its probationary status. And, in terms of academics, a study published in Science magazine recognized FAMU for its rapid growth in scientific research publications.”

TL: I’d have to know more about this accreditation case before even mentioning it in an article like this. The current DOE administration is looking into accreditation on the whole. Could this be politically motivated? It is Florida.

– “HBCUs do seem to offer unique success. Xavier University in New Orleans places more African-American students in medical school than any college in the country, and over half of all African-American women with science doctorates are alumnae of either Spelman or Bennett.”

TL: I’d like to see some concrete numbers here. Southern Illinois University—not an HBCU—runs a pre-health program for under-represented populations. I’ve heard that their placement rates are very high for medical school, etc.

– “As the country’s demographics change, many HBCUs are also becoming more diverse, with increased numbers of white, Hispanic, and international students. At Mississippi’s Alcorn State University, about 13 percent of the students are nonblack, says Interim President Malvin Williams. At Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, the figure is about 22 percent. ‘I sincerely believe that HBCUs are the meccas of a true multicultural experience,’ says ECSU graduate and faculty member Kevin Wade.

TL: I excerpted a great deal of this article to get the paragraph above. I wanted every reader here to see that some HBCUs are expanding their mission for the under-served and under-represented. They are simply acting on their founding visions for social justice. Of course Alcorn and many of the southern HBCUs were the recipients of activism by white brethren concerned about racism in the 1960s. The “returned favor” for Hispanic and international students seems a natural turn of good deed, not just a crass survival mechanism.

– ” ‘Think Justice’ is the motto at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. Philander Smith students like senior Kevin Cooper are assisting in programs celebrating the 50th anniversary this year of the Little Rock Nine’s successful fight to enter the previously segregated Arkansas high school. ‘This is a place for anyone who is able to see the need for change’ locally or globally, says freshman Tymia Morgan. ‘We want to be a cradle of justice, for individuals on a personal as well as a public level,’ says President Walter Kimbrough.

TL: I’m sorry if this is somewhat maudlin, but I just love this. It is very inspiring.

– ” ‘The perception that because HBCUs may have less financial resources, that the academic experience isn’t as rich or the quality of education will not be as high quality is just not true,’ says Pamela Felder Thompson, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University who has studied doctoral students’ development at elite institutions and is herself an HBCU alum, from the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore.”

TL: This is a great way to close the article’s narrative: from an HBCU alum teaching at a center of formerly white prestige and power in one of the most influential and cosmopolitan cities in the world.

Finally, the article ended by noting some “Famous Black College Alumni.” This exercise is almost obligatory for a piece like this, but here goes anyway:

– Howard University: Thurgood Marshall, Sen. Edward Brooke, and Toni Morrison;
– Morehouse College: Martin Luther King Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, and Spike Lee;
– North Carolina A&T State: Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jesse Jackson Jr.;
– Spelman College: Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman;
– Tennessee State University: Oprah Winfrey.

It is so very appropriate to end by noting the richest, best-known, and most influential HBCU alumna in the United States. Maybe she could help push the HBCUs to a more multicultural agenda? This alone would probably help fill HBCU coffers. But, more importantly, it would make HBCUs bigger cultural players on the general higher education scene. Any HBCU alum or enthusiasts want to weigh in on solutions to the HBCU money problem? – TL

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