Black Colleges Matter: And We Have the Data to Prove It

Students walk past the entrance to Spelman College in Atlanta, February 12, 2009. Tami Chappell/Reuters

August 18 brought us yet another article claiming that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are doomed and will all be gone soon, save a few. This time the author is Alexander Nazaryan and the media outlet is Newsweek.

Nazaryan's article is in part a review of a new book by Ron Stodghill titled Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America's Black Colleges and Culture. Stodghill's book is a collection of anecdotes based on interviews with various people associated in some way with HBCUs—it is not research-based and does not draw upon or build upon any research related to HBCUs. It is interesting and provocative and provides quite a bit of fodder for critics of HBCUs, which it seems was not Stodghill's intention given that he claims that HBCUs' demise will take "a vital part of our shared history with [it]."

Stodghill argues that HBCUs are "at a crossroads" and suggests that in 2015, "HBCUs face the first true existential crisis in their collective history." This statement, of course, is far from the truth; HBCUs have been under attack since the days that they first enrolled students—when merely educating African-Americans was considered radical and racists did anything and everything to shut down HBCUs. Stodghill and Nazaryan also failed to remember the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. With the landmark legal case, which most think only had an impact on the K-12 system, came great skepticism about the future of HBCUs; some philanthropists, including John D. Rockefeller Jr., even talked of pulling their support of HBCUs until black college presidents explained that desegregation was much different than integration. The presidents also argued that the demand for higher education in the U.S. made the continued existence of black colleges necessary to serve all students. Stodghill and Nazaryan also forgot about Daniel Thompson's 1973 classic book on HBCUs, Private Black Colleges at the Crossroads, and the countless newspaper articles claiming that HBCUs will die out and are in crisis.

HBCUs have found themselves at "the crossroads" time and time again and have survived and even thrived on the miniscule monetary resources that they receive from states and the federal government.

The numbers in Nazaryan's article show a grim picture for HBCUs, but they are inaccurate. Many HBCUs have disproportionate student outcomes despite serving great numbers of low-income and first generation students as well as students of color. Yes, HBCUs have lower graduation rates overall – hovering on average at 37% whereas the national average is 56 percent over six years and 39 percent for African-Americans overall (note that Nazaryan uses four year graduation rates, which are never used to discuss degree attainment). If Nazaryan had talked with experts who conduct research related to HBCUs, he would have known that graduation rates do not tell the entire HBCU story as they only measure the success of first-time, full-time students.

Most HBCUs have large numbers of students returning to school, attending part-time in addition to those that stop in and out (swirlers) of college due to financial and family responsibilities. Nazaryan would have also learned that it is not fair, feasible, nor remotely helpful to compare the outcomes of HBCUs, which often serve (not always) low-income students and underprepared students, to Ivy League institutions, which serve less than 10 percent (if that) low-income students and cater to over prepared students. The majority of colleges and universities in the U.S. do not have outcomes even close to Ivy League institutions; they don't have comparable endowments either. When making comparisons, one has to benchmark against institutions with similar inputs and resources. Using this approach, research shows that HBCUs have equal success to majority institutions and achieve this success using fewer resources.

Oddly, Nazaryan also claims that HBCUs aspire to be just like Ivy League and other Northeastern universities. Where does this claim originate? Not from HBCUs. This claim is a deeply engrained racism and elitism that causes many to believe that all black colleges desire to reflect the colonial institutions of the Northeastern corridor. Furthermore, it is the media and biased researchers that perpetuate the dichotomy between HBCUs and Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), not the HBCU community. Perhaps HBCUs strive to be great institutions in their own right—with a unique approach to higher education that actively resists White racism.

Nazaryan does note that some HBCUs have higher graduation rates, but even that information is incorrect. For example, he states that Spelman has 69 percent graduation and criticizes the institution for it; Spelman's graduation rate is well above the national average for all colleges and universities. Spelman, for example, disproportionately prepares black women to enter STEM fields. It is celebrated amongst HBCUs as a leader in its preparation of women of color. Rather than berating Spelman for its perceived gaps in relation to PWIs, Nazaryan's story would benefit by listening more closely to the voices that demonstrate—with data—how Spelman's approach to education makes a difference for women of color.

Although Stodghill predicts that soon there will only be 35 HBCUS left out of the current 105, he bases this prediction on absolutely no evidence; Nazaryan seems to need neither evidence nor data in his article. Based on our read of history and all of the evidence that we have before us, we will lose a few HBCUs, as well as a few under resourced PWIs, in the coming years, but most will continue to be a part of the national landscape.

One of the most disheartening aspects of Nazaryan's article is that he fixates on select examples (e.g. Morris Brown College in Atlanta) used to cast aspersions about all HBCUs. Morris Brown, which is used over and over by the media to talk about the weaknesses of HBCUs, has struggled for years and is not representative of the bulk of HBCUs. However, even Morris Brown College tends to bounce back and has a fight in its belly that is mesmerizing—a fight much like that of the formerly enslaved men and women who established the institution in 1881.

There is no denying that some HBCUs are having leadership problems, are engulfed in scandal, and that funding is an issue, especially in a nation that is focused on outcomes but conveniently forgets the inputs that lead to the outcomes. However, problems, scandals and funding are not unique to HBCUs. What about the scandal pertaining to Gerry Sandusky at Penn State or the leadership turmoil at the University of Virginia and University of Illinois, or Sweet Briar's current financial situation? Unfortunately, when an HBCU has a problem, it is used to describe all HBCUs. That is how American racism works. We take the actions of a few and use them to describe the actions of an entire race.

We are not living in a post-racial America as Alexander Nazaryan hints. We are living in a nation that is obsessed with race, regularly practices individual and systemic racism and is downright hostile toward African-Americans and apparently, African-American institutions. In 2015, HBCUs may be the very best place for an African-American student to attend college and if we are to come to any conclusions about the uptick in enrollments at HBCUs this year, such as Morgan State University, Morehouse College and Paul Quinn College; perhaps Black parents, communities and students have already figured out the importance of these venerable institutions to society during a time of escalating violence toward blacks. Yes, as Stodghill claims and Nazaryan parrots, enrollment did increase when A Different World (a TV show located at a fictional HBCU) was part of prime-time television, but it is also increasing now, as young African-Americans want to be heard in a nation that is telling them that they don't matter.

There is one place in the article where Nazaryan (and Stodghill) gets it right—but not based on any evidence—maybe on luck or a hunch! HBCU alumni do not give back to their alma maters at the level they should. Alumni giving rates hover near 5 percent for public HBCUs and near 10 percent for privates, with many alumni who we have interviewed identifying negative experiences with financial aid as the top reasons they don't give back to their HBCU (after not being asked). This trend has to change. HBCU alumni have to let go of their frustrations and see the bigger picture—a picture that needs HBCUs as part of society. African-Americans and the rest of the nation need HBCUs to lead us in our fight for equity and our full realization that #Blacklivesmatter.

Marybeth Gasman, Andrés Castro Samayoa, and Felecia Commodore are affiliated with the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, which focus on producing rigorous research related to HBCUs and other minority serving institutions.