Alums of Historically Black Colleges and Universities are filled with alma mater pride. Former students continuously boast about their undergraduate experience long after graduating—how they were culturally enhanced, intellectually challenged—and even keep in touch with former professors. Arguably, no Black college graduate has the school spirit of HBCU alums.
But today it seems HBCUs are under attack.
Last month, President Barack Obama hosted a White House reception in celebration of the contributions of the 105 Black colleges and universities. Obama pledged to invest $850 million in these schools over the next decade. Shortly after, the 21st century HBCU debate fledged into full swing.
The recent anti-HBCU commentary couples a set of frightening statistics behooving us all—HBCUs alums, or not— to take a closer look. Moreover, according to recent studies over the past three years, the collegiate crests mounting the chests of metropolitan Black professionals in cafes and “it” brunch spots, are the real schools left behind.
According to Jason L. Riley, long time writer and editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal, 90 percent of African Americans don’t attend HBCUs. And for the 10 percent who do, the six-year graduate rate is at 37 percent—20 percentage points below the national average, and eight percent below the average of Black students at predominately White colleges.
Riley’s article goes on to list more disappointing figures about HBCUs. Quoting a 2007 study by economists Roland Fryer of Harvard University and Michael Greenstone of MIT, the research finds that over the last 40 years, HBCU graduate’s earning power has decreased vastly. “In 1970s, HBCU matriculation was associated with higher wages and an increased probability of graduation, relative to attending a traditional college. By the 1990s, however, there is a substantial wage penalty. Overall 20 percent decline in the relative wages of HBCU graduates in two decades.” Fryer and Greenstone boldly concludes, “By some measures, HBCU attendance appears to retard Black progress.”
What’s more, Riley reports that SAT scores from students attending schools like Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, and other schools considered apart of the “Black Ivy League,” are significantly lower than those attending state schools. More plainly, the real HU is still Harvard.
And the HBCU statistical slam doesn’t end there. Enter Richard Vedder, director of the Center of College Affordability and Productivity, and economics professor at Ohio University.
Vedder backs Riley, affectionately calling him a great writer, and in words to follow his disdain for HBCUs, like: “I find the idea of race-based institutions of higher education very disturbing in this day and age.” Vedder goes on to give his empirical version of the ineffectiveness of HBCUs in a 21st century America.
Although quoting much of Riley’s piece, Vedder adds, “In the Forbes rankings (full disclosure: I am in charge of compiling them), there are some 610 schools ranked, and not one the HBCU’s makes the top half of that list.” Vedder mentions that Spelman is 59th in the US News & World Report rankings, stating that the ranking is “good but hardly the best.”
But why should HBCUs be best when statistically compared to historically White institutions? Spelman, as great as it is, is still a school designed to educate the daughters of slaves. We can not fairly evaluate the academic progress of Black students attending HBCUs without evaluating race in America. The real question is, while Howard, Spelman, and Hampton are well endowed, does this partial government funding truly address the ailing infrastructural needs of these institutions that have lagged on since they were founded?
Many HBCU alums will admit that while they were culturally enriched—seeing students and professors campus-wide who look like them on a daily basis—most of these coveted institutions are administratively challenged. Financial aid can come through too late, and facilities and materials are vastly dated. One alum of Howard says, “The Howard financial aid office is like that one uncle who owes you money, you know he’s wrong, but he’s my uncle, and you can’t talk about him.”
Still, as Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, argues in TheGrio.com, there are a plethora of positive attributes of HBCUs to consider. Lomax reminds us that HBCUs makes up only 4 percent of all 4-year institutions but produce more than 21 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans. Lomax continues, “A National Science Foundation study found that the top eight colleges producing African Americans who went on to get PhDs in science and engineering over the previous decade were HBCUs—ahead of Harvard, UC-Berkley, MIT, Brown and Stanford.”
It seems that as we progress further into a largely imaginative post-racial society, all Black institutions, from sororities to universities, are being called to task on relevancy and effectiveness. All the more reason for us to step our collective game up.