HBCUs- A Smart and Just Investment


During a recent call-in radio talk show about the funding challenges facing Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), an irritated listener demanded to know why HBCUs receive a disproportionately larger share of higher education dollars than other colleges and universities.

Aside from the factual inaccuracy of his statement- public HBCUs, in some cases, receive only 50 percent of the funding that historically white public institutions receive- the caller believed that HBCUs should not receive public funding precisely because these institutions are racially identifiable. Predictably missing from his perspective is the inverse of the argument – white institutions are racially identifiable, too.

The recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake in the Coalition for Equity and Excellence v. the Maryland Higher Education Commission concludes that Maryland’s HBCUs are indeed racially identifiable, but not by choice.

The court concluded that Maryland continues to maintain a dual structure of higher education through state policies that encourage program duplication, which robs HBCUs of their ability to grow and to compete effectively against their White counterparts for students.

HBCUs were founded for the purpose of educating blacks who were denied admission to most colleges and universities at the time. They have been and they continue to be open to all qualifying students without regard to their race, ethnicity or other non bona fide criteria.

Thirteen percent of HBCU students are white, on average, a percentage that has held steady for more than a decade. And, Bluefield State College West Virginia State University, and Lincoln University in Missouri all HBCUs, enroll a majority of white students. Kentucky State University, among the most diverse HBCUs, is about evenly divided among black and other race students, HBCUs are today enrolling increasing numbers of Latinos (3 percent), Asian Americans (1 percent), and bi-racial (5 percent) students as well.

Not only have HBCUs been the standard bearers of diversity for the nation, but these institutions are at the front of the line when it comes to responding to the workforce and human needs of their service communities and the world. The agility of HBCUs and their entrepreneurial spirit is reflected in their unique, high-demand programs in science, technology, engineering, agriculture, math, homeland security, environmental sustainability, health care-related fields, and education.

These programs attract some 300,000 full-time students – white and black – and create an economic impact of $13 billion to the U.S. economy while providing employment to 188,000, which puts HBCUs on the same scale as Fortune 500 companies.

As HBCUs adapted their offerings to remain in the forefront of meeting the academic, research, scientific, civic, entrepreneurial, workforce and human needs of the day, their successes were retarded or reversed by program duplication at historically white institutions geographically proximate to their campuses. This occurred in a process not unlike test marketing in business,  which aims to create a successful, replicable and cost-effective product on a smaller scale prior
to a wide scale roll-out.

Rather than supporting the progress being made at HBCUs, the state of Maryland and other states have chosen to make large investments in white institutions, duplicating the most innovative and well-subscribed programs, especially at the graduate level. This is undermining the efforts of HBCUs to expand their market share and to attract and graduate diverse constituents.

The unnecessary duplication of academic programs at historically black institutions by historically white schools “was part and parcel of the prior dual system of higher education – the whole notion of ‘separate but equal’ that required duplicative programs in two sets of schools.” Program duplication, coupled with the chronic, historic and contemporary underfunding of HBCUs, threaten HBCU “comparability and competitiveness relative to their HWCU counterparts.

As a remedy, the U.S. District Court is strongly suggested that the parties enter into mediation to address the program duplication that is perpetuating the effects of the de jure discrimination in the state’s higher education system. Critical to the success of the mediation will be having the right people at the table.

The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) is uniquely positioned to assist in negotiating a fair and equitable approach to eliminating program duplication. Having represented HBCUs in similar cases in eighteen states, we have a good sense of the policies, programs and practices that will assist the state of Maryland in removing once and for all the remaining vestiges of its dual and unequal higher education system and perpetuating the status quo ante.

NAFEO welcomes a seat at the table on behalf of its member institutions because at the heart of this matter are students, not institutions. Bowie State, Coppin State, Morgan State, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, with their unique missions, courses and programming, offer the students of Maryland and the world tremendous options. When the discriminatory practice of program duplication is removed, these institutions will move to even greater heights.

Dr. Lezli Baskerville, is president and CEO of the National Association For Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

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HBCUs- A Smart and Just Investment

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