Separate but equal didn’t work when whites tried to stop the integration of public schools in the 50s and 60s, and it doesn’t seem to be working for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as they struggle to maintain enrollment, funding—and purpose in the 21st century.
It would be irresponsible to dismiss HBCUs as archaic and unnecessary institutions. At a time when blacks were denied quality education, HBCUs provided a bridge to black leadership and black professionalism; we wouldn’t as successful as we are–in many ways–without the aid of HBCUs.
In 2015 however, the ability for a black student to be successful is largely determined by black students themselves. Statistics show that black student enrollment in colleges and universities is the highest it’s ever been historically, the majority of black people are middle-class, and while there are still vestiges of racism (especially in the area of police brutality), black students are great thinkers and contributors to society.
Unfortunately, the statistics on HBCUs paint a dim picture for their continued effectiveness:
• HBCUs enroll 9 percent of black undergraduates and award 16 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned by black Americans.
• Among Black students, the percentage enrolled at HBCUs has fallen over time, from 18 percent in 1976 to 9 percent in 2011
• In a survey of the nation’s top HBCUs, only Spellman, Howard, Hampton and Morehouse had graduation rates (within 6 years) that were over 50% for a bachelor’s degree as of 2014.
So, not more than 25% of black people choose to enroll in HBCUs, and of those who do, most take longer than the 6 years to graduate with a degree–if they graduate at all. And while the statistics can (and do) go on, they show that a restructuring of the HBCU model is necessary.
Instead of saying “away with the HBCU” we should be saying “where is the HBCU 2.o version”?
When President Obama unveiled his plan for education reforms earlier this year, it was shocking to see the near total outcry from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Charges of institutionalized racism and unfair treatment where lobbed at a reform which will effect ALL post secondary two and four year institutions–not just the black ones.
But this isn’t racism: this is an opportunity for HBCUs to revamp a once successful model into a 21st century powerhouse of learning for African Americans. HBCUs must see reform as an opportunity to focus on the classical educational model of hard work for deserved success; this is what made made Booker T. Washington, Thurgood Marshall, Oprah Winfrey so many others so proud to attach their names to these (once) monumental schools of learning.
According to an article by Donovan Ramsey, Obama’s reforms are essentially “a consumer report of sorts that will assign grades to two- and four-year institutions for their performance as it relates to access, affordability, and outcomes.”
Critics of Obama’s initiative, such as Michael L. Lomax, the president of the United Negro College Fund, believe that this puts HBCUs at a disadvantage because “Harvard has a $36 billion endowment and enrolls academically elite students…Dillard has a $49 million endowment and…[enrolls] many students who are not as academically prepared for college as their more advantaged peers.”
While this may be a fair criticism, the question isn’t how much money do you have in your endowment? The question is how do you help students become academically prepared for success?
HBCUs: You’ve had decades to solve the problem of academically-struggling black students: what have you been spending your endowment on?
Arguing that “our students are too stupid to perform on the same level as white students” is degrading, disrespectful, and ultimately, it is a lazy approach to dealing with the real problem of the education gap in America.
Black students need to work twice as hard to be successful in college IF they come from a disadvantaged background. This is a fact I learned the hard way when I realized that my urban school education left many gaps. I did not resign myself to being “stupid”, and Truman State University did not treat me as such. I got reading lists from English professors, I stayed in math tutoring late, I was in the writing center where I could get quality help from students working on Masters and PhDs.
The President of Morehouse College, Dr. John Wilson
I didn’t party as much as I wanted to, and I didn’t go out and “enjoy” the college experience like people say you should; I took that time to make myself a learned woman—and it was time well spent.
So why then is my opinion, which is shared by Morehouse President John Wilson, in the minority? Wilson acknowledges the possibility of problems, but sees reform as a win.
He says that “as long as the federal government makes like comparisons it can only be a benefit to HBCUs, but the notion that no information is better than imperfect information is flawed.”
Wilson is right, and Obama has taken note of this in his plan:
“The ratings system as proposed includes a number of metrics. First, it would factor in a college’s average net cost—the total annual cost of attending the school for a beginning full-time student, before any aid. Then, it would account for student-completion rates, the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants, and outcomes like graduates’ earnings and loan-repayment rates. Based on that information, the Department of Education would assign each institution a rating of “high,” “low,” or “mid performing.”
The White House also recognizes that this plan must “evolve.” This is only the first blueprint in a design that will surely grow to fit the needs of parents and students.
This is also time for HBCUs to evolve as well. Instead of looking at reform as a supremacist attempt to undermine black students, we can all see this as the first step on a long road to creating a system of higher learning that works equally–for ALL of us.