Once again historically Black post-secondary institutions find themselves the target of an unwarranted and deceitful attack. This rhetoric marginalizes and mischaracterizes the vital role these public and private schools play to spur the growth and development of individual Black students, their communities and the nation at large.
A Wall Street Journal editorial written by Jason L. Riley states that historically Black institutions are failing so miserably, they should either be reconstituted as community colleges, taken over by for-profit colleges or shuttered. Worse, WSJ argues President Obama should withhold the $850 million investment, pledged over 10 years, to help fund the unique mission of 105 historically Black universities and colleges (HBCUs).
The WSJ bases its hypothesis in part on outdated data and debatable sources, including a 1974 article by conservative Thomas Sowell, who is not an educational scholar. The WSJ also uses an imbalanced comparison of the second-year retention and graduation rates between predominantly Black schools and predominantly White schools. We’ve seen this insulting prejudicial ploy before.
All things are still not equal in America. Without HBCUs, Black students, particularly with low SAT scores, would not get a higher education. Common sense recognizes that if those same HBCU students, dependent on limited Pell grants, often drop out in the critical second year mainly due to economic pressures, then HBCUs will have lower graduation rates.
All schools must meet high academic standards. However HBCUs are not struggling alone. The Obama administration is attempting to improve underperforming American post-secondary schools above their 57 percent overall graduation rate and ranking of 20th among world nations. “We cannot reach our goal without HBCUs,” Obama said during a White House National HBCU Week reception.
The president’s proclamation states HBCUs have made “immeasurable contributions,” have a legacy of “graduates whose achievements adorn the pages of American history,” and are “important engines of economic growth and community service.”
As a refresher, the traditional mission of HBCUs, for the past 150 years, has been providing educational opportunities in a nurturing environment for poor, Black students when no one else would or could address their unique needs. These students generally have extraordinary financial stresses and are ill-prepared for college-level courses, as evidenced by their comparatively low SAT scores. The majority would be unable to gain acceptance to mainstream colleges, let alone graduate from one. The cost is prohibitive and the culture unfamiliar—sometimes hostile.
The HBCUs’ laudable mission has never been easy. The schools are perpetually underfunded and have low endowments, but must spend vast amounts of their limited resources on remedial programs for freshman and sophomores often ill-prepared for college after graduating from teetering public school districts.
The poor economy and state cutbacks are particularly harsh for HBCUs with far more to do with far fewer dollars. Nonetheless, HBCUs continue graduating stellar students able to tap into strong alumni networks as they go forward.
Had WSJ bothered to drill down beyond surface statistics they would not have found such a dismal situation at all HBCUs.
In Maryland, when the absolute number of degrees awarded African-American students at HBCUs are compared with that number at other institutions, the public and private HBCUs actually awarded a higher percentage of African Americans baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees, notably in more fields considered critical to the future than any other institutions. These results, in an Urban League Report on Higher Education, are based on 2006 findings of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, latest year of a source used in Riley’s WSJ piece.
“The measure of the value and success of Maryland’s traditionally Black 4-year institutions should be the absolute number of their productivity, not the measure of their fallout from environmental and socio-economic barriers the students they accept in greatest numbers bring in pursuit of their educational goals,” the UL report suggests.
Contrary to the WSJ’s report, thousands of African Americans, as well as some Whites, are still choosing to attend HBCUs. After reading the WSJ editorial, a Black Silver Spring, Md. father pointed out it would cost him $300,000 to send his three daughters to the University of Maryland. An HBCU graduate, he has no qualms sending his children to Morgan State, which he will be able to afford and where he is confident they will receive the guidance and quality education they deserve.
Maybe WSJ should have spoke to this father before using outdated and misleading data for its questionable agenda. It is no secret Wall Street is enamored of for-profit colleges, in spite of concerns being raised that too many are more interested in tuition than in training. Some are being scrutinized for issuing meaningless diplomas while leaving minority students with mountains of debt in student loans.
America will not witness full economic recovery without a highly-educated and trained workforce. This means all students, particularly African-American students, must have a wide range of learning environments available to them. Historically Black institutions continue to serve this unique population better than any other. These schools should be commended for their achievements despite the odds, not condemned as convenient scapegoats.