Are HBCUs still relevant?

Students at Howard University’s Griffith stadium, circa 1925. –PHOTO/ZACK BURGESS

For almost two centuries now, historically Black colleges or HBCUs as they are often called, have been educating the best and the brightest.

So, when Barack Obama broke the glass ceiling of electoral politics and became the first African American to serve as President of the United States, many hailed his accomplishment as an important sign of racial progress and equality of opportunity – feeling that African Americans had finally arrived.

At the same time, some looked toward historically Black colleges and universities, institutions established in a time of overt segregation and restricted educational opportunity, and asked, "Are HBCUs still relevant to the nation's future?"

The reality today, however, is that there's no shortage of traditional colleges willing to give Black students a chance. When segregation was legal, Black colleges were responsible for almost all Black collegians. Today, nearly 90 percent of Black students spurn historically Black colleges.

"Even the best Black colleges and universities do not approach the standards of quality of respectable institutions," wrote economist Thomas Sowell. "None has a department ranking among the leading graduate departments in any of the 29 fields surveyed by the American Council of Education. None ranks among the 'selective' institutions with regard to student admissions. None has a student body whose College Board scores are within 100 points of any school in the Ivy League."

Sowell wrote in an academic journal in 1974, yet with few exceptions the description remains accurate. These days the better Black schools—Howard, Spelman, Morehouse - are rated "selective" in the U.S. News rankings, but their average SAT scores still lag behind those at decent state schools like the University of Texas at Austin, and lag far behind Ivy League schools.

In 2006, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the six-year graduation rate at HBCUs was 37 percent. That's 20 percentage points below the national average and eight percentage points below the average of Black students at other colleges. A recent Washington Monthly magazine survey of colleges with the worst graduation rates featured Black schools in first and second place, and in eight of the top 24 spots.

“I don’t think you can judge a historically Black school by the numbers,” said Dr. Ben Gilbert, a Philadelphia-based dentist and Howard University graduate. “They give you confidence, help you understand who you are, and give you a plethora of lifelong friendships that are valuable beyond your wildest dreams. I have a network of friends all over the world because of my Howard experience. Therefore, my kids are now at Howard, enjoying that same experience.”

But economists Roland Fryer of Harvard and Michael Greenstone of MIT have found Black colleges are inferior to traditional schools in preparing students for post-college life. "In the 1970s, HBCU matriculation was associated with higher wages and an increased probability of graduation, relative to attending a [traditional college]," they wrote in a 2007 paper. "By the 1990s, however, there is a substantial wage penalty. Overall, there is a 20 percent decline in the relative wages of HBCU graduates in just two decades." The authors concluded that "by some measures, HBCU attendance appears to retard Black progress."

Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have urged HBCUs to improve their graduation rates - Duncan has said they need to increase “exponentially” - but the administration has brought little pressure to bear, and is offering substantial financial assistance to keep them afloat. Howard and Spelman have endowments valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but a large majority of Black colleges have very small endowments and more than 80 percent get most of their revenue from the government.

“The reality is this…if you want it, that’s success, it’s out there for you to get no matter where you go to school,” said Rodney Cohen, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Students at Yale University and a graduate of Clark University in Atlanta. “I wouldn’t trade my experience at the AU Center for anything. I have seen how lonely these kids are who attend schools with people who do not look like them and act like them. I have so many friends today who will often say to me how they wish they had attended an HBCU. You come out of them ready for the world. Often the kids who attend HBCU’s are the first to go to college in their family, so they come out of them with a different kind of hunger. They are still very relevant for our kids today.”

Consider the fact while the 105 public and private HBCUs make up only 3 percent of today's colleges and universities, more than 20 percent of all African-American college graduates attended an HBCU. Particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), where Black students are woefully under-represented in most predominantly white institutions, HBCUs have demonstrated great effectiveness in fostering academic success. In fact, according to the National Science Foundation, almost a third of all doctoral degrees awarded in the sciences to African Americans went to men and women who attended HBCUs as undergraduates.

Spelman College is leading the way, having sent more African Americans (150 women) on to earn Ph.D. degrees in the STEM fields in the ten years between 1997 and 2006 than Georgia Tech (32), Emory (24), Duke (34), and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (54) combined.

“Most importantly you are taught to pay it forward. To mentor and be an inspiration to someone else,” said Mark Christie, a businessman, who attended Hampton University. “It’s ingrained in you to give back, because you don’t get to a certain level of success without help. And for me, it started on that Campus back in Hampton, Virginia. Definitely they are still needed. Black schools help you find your identity. And to be Black in America, that’s very important.”


Zack Burgess is the enterprise writer for The Tribune.

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