THE QUESTION OF HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES
by Anitra D. Brown
A usually rhythmically eloquent President Barack Obama did all but stutter in his response to a question posed by a Southern University student during his recent visit to Baton Rouge. The student was hoping the President could offer him some advice on what to say to the Black high school students reluctant to attend an HBCU because they feared the experiences and degrees won’t offer them as much opportunity (read potential employment and graduate education prospects) compared to attending a school like LSU or Tulane.
The President started with a blustering statement that, while paying homage to HBCUs, was a bit chiched.
“Well, first of all, the role of the historically black colleges and universities in producing our leadership and expanding opportunity — training doctors and teachers and lawyers and ministers who change the landscape of America. I hope most people know that story; and if not, you better learn it, because it has been powerful, and continues to be a powerful tradition.”
But his response was soon saddled with hesitation and stipulation:
“And I will tell you that if you have done well at an HBCU and graduated, and you go to an employer and are making the kind of presentation you make or a Morehouse man makes or a Spelman young lady makes, you will do just fine. I don’t think it’s true that actually people don’t take — or discount that tradition. And you will be credentialed. You’ll succeed.”
One has to wonder if the same caveat to success (doing well and graduating) exists for those that attend non-HBCUs. Also, he does know there are other HBCUs besides Spelman and Morehouse…doesn’t he?
At any rate, it pretty much went downhill from there. He continued—going on about poor graduation rates at HBCUs and mountains of student loan debt that HBCU students and graduates are saddled with—as if any of those higher education woes are specific to the nation’s roughly 100 colleges and universities labeled as historically Black. To be sure, student loan debt is a problem, but not for HBCU grads alone. A U.S. Department of Education survey of 15,000 high school students in 2002, and again in 2012 at age 27, found that 84 percent of the 27-year-olds had some college education, but only 34 percent achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher. It also showed that 79 percent owed student loans, with 55 percent owing more than $10,000. And that survey was not specific to HBCU students or graduates, but more likely mirrored the country’s demographics.
“I don’t expect President Obama to be an HBCU expert,” says Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University. “He grew up in Hawaii, where there are no HBCUs. “I blame the folk around him. I’ve been in meetings with some of those same people. And they don’t know anything about HBCUs.”
Perhaps the President’s out-of-sorts response might not have seemed so pejorative if it had occurred in a vacuum. But it didn’t. Just a few weeks earlier, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s statement regarding Black students and “lesser” schools as the court took up Fisher v. University of Texas, a case concerning the affirmative action policy at the University of Texas at Austin, rightfully raised brows. Then, there was a local daily newspaper’s front page story dated Jan. 28 about HBCUs struggling to stay afloat and relevant. Throw in the announcement that state budget shortfalls forcing schools like Louisiana State University to make cuts and adjustments has the Southern University System mulling closure. And don’t forget that only six months or so earlier in August 2015, Knoxville College, the private HBCU established in 1875 in Tennessee by the United Presbyterian Church of North America, closed its doors with fewer than 10 students enrolled.
It’s no small wonder that the perennial, red-hot debate about applicability of HBCUs is ignited again.
THE RHETORIC OF RELEVANCE
To be sure, those who know and understand their legacy are rightfully bothered by the question of their relevancy. And President Obama was correct about one thing—HBCU’s have an impressive track record of producing leaders that have had a profound impact on the shaping of America. They gave us entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey; award-winning authors Toni Morrison and Alice Walker; filmmaker Spike Lee; former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain; the first African-American to serve as president of an Ivy League school Ruth Simmons; actresses Keshia Knight Pulliam and Taraji P. Henson; actor, rapper, producer David Banner, and Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer, just to name a few. Of course, HBCU also produced civil rights leaders Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as well as civil rights attorney and first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Closer to home, a short list of HBCU graduates include state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson; Judge Nekisha Ervin-Knott, WDSU anchor Camille Whitworth, environmentalist Dr. Beverly Wright; WBOK producer and radio personality Janea Pierre, Judge Terri Love, Judge Regina Bartholomew; Dr. Corey Hebert; Congressman Cedric Richmond, Entergy CEO Charles Rice, state Rep. Joe Bouie, restaurant owner and businessman Edgar Chase IV; and the longest-serving university president in America Norman Francis. The city’s first Black mayor Dutch Morial, the first Black state Supreme Court Justice Revius Ortique, the first Black district court Judge Israel Augustine, famed civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud were also all HBCU grads.
It could, with ease, be reasoned that barely 150 years removed from institution of slavery and still very much in the shadow of its vestiges, Blacks in America would not have made as much progress as they have had it not been for HBCUs.
Of course, the narrative that underlies the existence of HBCUs in America is well-known. It is a storyline wrought by necessity, steeped in tradition and sustained with pride. Some HBCUs are the private institutions that over the years were transformed from the colored institutes, normal schools and teachers’ colleges founded by people of color or religious organizations in the first several of decades after the Civil War to educate the formerly enslaved and their children. And as the postbellum period gave way to Jim Crow, they are the institutions that educated Black men and women in America when others refused to open their doors to them. Some are public, established by state legislatures under “separate, but equal” doctrines to serve Black students in lieu of admitting them to the state-run, historically all-White schools, such as when the Texas legislature scrambled to open a law school in Houston for Blacks and a university to house it when it started Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University) in 1947 barely one year after Herman Sweatt was denied entrance into the law school at the University of Texas at Austin because he was Black.
And while that narrative is accurate and authentic, it is also a bit antiquated.
It has remained virtually unchanged since the early 1980s, says Dillard’s Kimbrough, which was about the time he noticed HBCUs had to start seriously defending themselves against the rhetoric of relevance. As important as that narrative is, the story of HBCUs must be told in new and different ways, he says.
“We have to start telling a different story,” he says.
To Kimbrough’s point, there are plenty of meaningful facts that illustrate the continued importance of HBCUs.
FROM RELEVANCE TO RESULTS
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) make up about three percent of all colleges and universities in America, but they are responsible for more than 22 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by Blacks in the nation, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a national organization that provides support to public HBCUs. Now consider that fact with the following detail—among all Black college students, only about 8 percent were enrolled at HBCUs in 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
For context, this means that the roughly 100 HBCUs (which only represent roughly three percent of colleges and universities) are still responsible for more than 20 percent of all Black students that graduate from college in the United States even though they are educating only 8 percent of all Blacks enrolled in college. They must be doing something right.
Moreover, if HBCUs are irrelevant, the more than 300,000 students (roughly 20 percent of whom are not Black) that are currently enrolled at one did not get the memo.
Ariel Lucius graduated from Dillard in May 2015 as the class valedictorian, but only after a rocky start to her collegiate career at a non-HBCU.
“I actually started at a predominately white institution. It was a large state school. I was a theater major, and even though my department was extremely small, I still felt like just a number,” Lucius says. “There was no personalization. I didn’t feel cared for as a student. I felt like I was there to meet a quota. Also, I began to notice that I was not getting cast in any productions. I began to wonder if I had the skills to make it or if I was in the right major. It wasn’t until a role that called for a person of color was filled by a white student that I decided that I was in the wrong place. I transferred to Dillard University. It was the best decision I ever made.”
On the relevancy question, Lucius has this to say: “I’ve heard lots of debates and discussions on whether HBCU’s are ‘relevant’ or not. This could go hand-in-hand with ‘Should there be a Black History Month?’, ‘Do we really need BET?’ and ‘Do we have to have the NAACP Awards?’ The answer to all of these questions is undeniably, ‘yes’. We support and uplift each other. So, do HBCUs matter? Are they still relevant today? To answer these questions, I pose to you a series of questions. Why is it a problem to educate our Black youth? Why is America afraid of the unity and education of Blacks and African-Americans? What’s wrong with us helping each other? The relevancy of ivy leagues is never called into question. Let that sink in.”
A sophomore pre-med biology major at Xavier University of Louisiana, Briana Burras applied and was accepted to more than a half-dozen universities including LSU, Dillard University, the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, the University of Louisiana-Monroe, Loyola, and Tulane. She says she considered her major, the costs and how her college education would be financed when deciding which school to attend, but adds that choosing an HBCU was also an important factor.
“Going to an HBCU—it was No. 1 on the list. It’s true,” says Burras, “I knew I didn’t just want to be a number. I wanted to walk into my teacher’s office and hear them say, “hey Briana” not “hey, what’s your name again. So far, it’s everything I thought it would be and more. It’s family-oriented. There are a lot of resources and my professors actually care. They push me to make sure I am on the right track.”
While both Burras and Lucius’ personal experiences and anecdotal evidence are telling and compelling, there are more hard facts that speak to the relevancy of HBCUs.
According to the United Negro College Fund, which directly supports more than three-dozen private HBCUs as well as provides support to Black students attending mainstream colleges and universities, HBCUs still generate 25 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by African Americans in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
HBCUs also offer higher education leading to bachelor’s degrees for half the cost of most other schools, which is critically significant considering the substantial wealth and income gaps between White and Black families in America.
As to the perception of HBCU’s being less effective—which was at the heart of the SU student’s question to President Obama—Kimbrough says he looks at what Dillard and other HBCU graduates are doing once they leave. And he blames any notion that HBCU grads aren’t receiving the best education and training available to half-baked perceptions about race in America.
“Except for the Black church, every Black institution in America—from Black businesses to HBCUs—is perceived as inferior. The best way to (prove those stereotypes wrong) is by competing in the same space. I look at where Dillard students are going after they graduate. They are going to the same graduate schools and they are competing.”
In fact, one recent study conducted by Gallup and Purdue University that examined 520 Black graduates of HBCUs and 1,758 Black graduates of other colleges found that the HBCU grads felt more prepared for life after graduation. The poll looked at five elements of well-being including: purpose, social, financial, community and physical; then asked graduates about their satisfaction with their college experience and current engagement at work. According to Gallup, 55 percent of Black HBCU graduates said they felt prepared for life after graduation, while only 29 percent of Black graduates from other institutions said they felt prepared.
Kimbrough also points to the challenges facing Black student populations and concerns of racism and opportunity at mainstream schools as another case for the continued need for HBCUs.
“I look at what’s happening at Mizzou with #ConcernedStudent1950 (the hashtag given to the anti-racism protests recently waged by Black students at the University of Missouri-Columbia), where Black students are going to these schools and finding racism and finding that their needs and concerns are not being met,” says Kimbrough. “Then, I look at what is happening at the University of Connecticut, where they are now creating a special learning community for Black male students, and I say ‘hey, we have that at Dillard University, it’s called Dillard University.’ ”
The University of Connecticut recently announced that it will open ScHOLA2RS House next fall. The learning community will be open to 40 freshmen and sophomores and while participation will be open to all students, those who identify as Black or mixed-race will be prioritized in selection in an effort to address the low graduation rate of Black male students at that campus.
THE REAL CHALLENGES
Neither Kimbrough nor Xavier University’s President C. Reynold Verret shy away from the real challenges that face America’s HBCU’s today—whether they are graduation rates, money problems, retention rates or governance issues.
Xavier’s Verret also views maintaining affordability for the students it serves while remaining competitive in attracting faculty and in program offerings as one of his HBCU’s chief issues and important goals.
To his credit, Pres. Obama ultimately included in his response to the question posed by the Southern student the fact that many HBCUs often accept students that other colleges and universities deny—students who may not come from top performing high schools or students whose GPAs or standardized test performances may not accurately reflect their full potential.
In fact, HBCUs can be ideal for those students, Verret says.
“I do not believe we have an achievement gap,” Verret says. “We have an expectation gap, but with encouragement and even a good nudge from someone you’re convinced cares about your success, students will rise to meet expectations. They may not have had all of the educational tools they need when they first come here, but when they leave here, they will.”
One of the reasons tuition at many HBCUs is more affordable than mainstream institutions is because “we are not charging our market value,” Kimbrough says, “When we look at the families we serve, we can’t. For every one dollar in wealth, a White person has, a Black person has 10 cents. Many of my students come from single parent homes led by women that make 75 to 77 percent on the dollar compared to what her male counterparts make. For Black women, that number is even lower. You still have to deal with income inequality (in America). Also, half of our students come from Louisiana—a poor state. It starts and ends with money.”
And graduation and retention rates are directly impacted by money, he says.
“For example, they talk about graduation rates. I wish they would compare graduation rates based on the percentage of Pell Grant eligible students,” Kimbrough says. “Dillard has a graduation rate in the mid-to-high 30 percentile. We’ve got to own those numbers, but let’s put them in context. Forty-two percent of my students are Pell Grant eligible students.”
When Dillard’s graduation rate is put up against with other schools that have a comparable rate of Pell Grant eligible students, Dillard’s graduation rate becomes more competitive, he adds.
“Now, I believe less than 20 percent of LSU’s students are Pell Grant eligible; and if you compare its graduation rate with schools that have less than 20 percent of their students eligible for Pell Grants, LSU is at the bottom of the list. They don’t want to hear that; but you have to use all the data. You can’t just pick a point. You want to talk about the numbers, let’s bring all the numbers to the table.”
Because Pell Grant eligibility is based on financial need, it serves as a fair indicator of the number of students entering college from families that lack economic resources.
“Money is a major challenge, and HBCUs are under-resourced institutions serving under-resourced people,” Kimbrough adds. “If I had the budget I needed, my graduation rate would be 90 percent.”
Verret agrees that money is at the root of poor graduation and retention rates problem. Students are not leaving school before they can graduate because they are failing. They leave because they can’t afford it—sometimes foregoing re-enrollment because of a few thousand or just several hundred dollars.
“Many students at HBCUs are first-generation college students,” Verret says. “Their parents may not be well-versed in the machinery of college. They don’t have the financial resources, so small things can become an issue.”
And Kimbrough says when he considers the economic challenges many Black families face trying to make ends meet in a disparate economy, he understands that HBCU students and their parents may struggle to pay tuition bills.
To their credit, both schools have created emergency funds to help students stay in school. At Dillard, the program is called the Safe Fund and provides students with anywhere from $500 to $2000 to “help meet unmet need and clear balances so they can stay in school,” Kimbrough says, adding that for the Spring 2016 semester, Dillard is at about 97 percent of its Fall 2015 enrollment—a fact he attributes to the Safe Fund.
At Xavier, the Escape Fund helps students “get across the financial barriers” that would otherwise prevent them from returning to school, says Verret.
Both Verret and Kimbrough also say that some HBCUs have to deal with strengthening issues related to governance and financial management as well.
“We’ve got to own some of that,” Kimbrough says. “But in many ways, even that stems from financial issues. It all starts and ends with money.”
And while these private HBCUs have some flexibility in creating unique solutions to meet at least some of the challenges, Verret, who served as president of Savannah State University, a publicly funded HBCU in Georgia, before taking the helm of Xavier, also recognizes that public HBCUs face an additional set of challenges.
Financial issues are more acute at state-run HBCUs that must operate inside of a political structure, he says.
In fact, state budget issues in Louisiana no doubt have leadership at the Southern University System, including the local campus Southern University at New Orleans, concerned about what state budget shortfalls and impending cuts for their campuses will mean for the future of their universities.
Attempts to reach leaders at SUS and SUNO before The New Orleans Tribune went to press were unsuccessful. However, the recurrent political wrangling whether the state should close the state-run HBCUs, ostensibly merging them with other state-funded public institutions like UNO and LSU, is an enduring debate that will no doubt escalate as the political leaders examine ways to face the current financial crisis.