HBCU Leaders Respond!

NAFEO President Lezli Baskerville and other key leaders in the HBCU community respond to recent media attacks on HBCUs, rebutting erroneous claims and forcefully making the case for the value, relevance and continuing need for these institutions in American higher education.

Black Colleges Need a New Mission: Once an essential response to racism, they are now academically inferior.


September 28, 2010

President Obama has shown a commendable willingness to shake up the status quo in K-12 education by advocating reforms, such as charter schools, that have left his teachers union base none-too-pleased. So it’s unfortunate that he has such a conventional approach to higher education, and to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in particular.

Earlier this month, Mr. Obama hosted a White House reception to celebrate the contributions of the nation’s 105 black colleges and to reiterate his pledge to invest another $850 million in these institutions over the next decade.

Recalling the circumstances under which many of these schools were created after the Civil War, the president noted that “at a critical time in our nation’s history, HBCUs waged war against illiteracy and ignorance and won.” He added: “You have made it possible for millions of people to achieve their dreams and gave so many young people a chance they never thought they’d have, a chance that nobody else would give them.”

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% of black students spurn such schools, and the available evidence shows that, in the main, these students are better off exercising their non-HBCU options.

“Even the best black colleges and universities do not approach the standards of quality of respectable institutions,” according to 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.”

Mr. Sowell wrote that 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, never mind a Stanford or Yale.

In 2006, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the six-year graduation rate at HBCUs was 37%. 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.

The economists Roland Fryer of Harvard and Michael Greenstone of MIT have found that 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% 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.”

Mr. Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have urged HBCUs to improve their graduation rates—Mr. 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% get most of their revenue from the government.

Instead of more subsidies and toothless warnings to shape up, Mr. Obama ought to use the federal government’s leverage to remake these schools to meet today’s challenges.

Uneconomically small black colleges could be consolidated. For-profit entities could be brought in to manage other schools. (For the past two years, the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college, has conferred more bachelor’s degrees on black students than any other school.) Still other HBCUs could be repurposed as community colleges that focus on developmental courses to compensate for the poor elementary and secondary educations that so many black children still receive.

In 1967, two white academics, Christopher Jencks and David Riesman, published a bleak but prescient assessment of black colleges in the Harvard Educational Review. They predicted that these schools are “for the most part, likely to remain fourth-rate institutions at the tail end of the academic procession.” Messrs. Jencks and Riesman were called racists, and honest comprehensive studies of black colleges have since been rare.

Black colleges are at a crossroads. At one time black colleges were an essential response to racism. They trained a generation of civil rights lawyers and activists who helped end segregation. Their place in U.S. history is secure. Today, however, dwindling enrollments and endowments indicate that fewer and fewer blacks believe that these schools, as currently constituted, represent the best available academic choice.

A black president is uniquely qualified to restart this discussion. Anyone who cares about the future of black higher education should hope that he does.

NAFEO, the Membership Association of the Nation’s Public and Private 2- and 4-Year HBCUs and PBIs, Responds to Jason Riley’s “Black Colleges Need a New Mission: Once an Essential Response to Racism, they are Now Academically Inferior.”

Dear Editor:

On these editorial pages Jason L. Riley, a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, recently called into question the continuing need for the richly diverse, unique, mission driven 105 colleges and universities congressionally legislated as “Historically Black Colleges and Universities” (HBCUs). The question that he raised is on the minds of more than a few policy makers, policy shapers, parents and students, especially during these austere times in which we are seeking ways of investing more strategically the sparse public and private dollars that are being devoted to developing human capital to return our nation to preeminence. It is understandable that The Wall Street Journal would use its coveted editorial pages to suggest ways of making this diverse community of colleges more effective and efficient. According to a 2006 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the short-term economic impact of HBCUs is $10 billion. Short-term economic impact was defined in that report by the expenditures of the colleges and universities on salaries and other institutional expenditures, and the expenditures of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students attending the institution in the communities in which the institutions are located. This figure does not capture the vast other multipliers for out years.  A 2006 Department of Commerce report indicated that the total employment impact of 101 of the HBCUs included 180,142 total full and part-time jobs, making the rolled-up employment impact of the nation’s HBCUs in excess of the 177,000 jobs at the Bank of America in 2006, which was the nation’s 23rd largest employer.

Given the above realities, there is little wonder why The Wall Street Journal would use its editorial pages to explore the future of HBCUs. Given the shifting higher education landscape, now is, indeed, the time to look at ways of adjusting the entire higher education community of colleges and universities to make it more excellent, effective and efficient, while continuing to maintain the diverse institutional missions and offerings that make the American higher education system unique.

One wonders, however, why The WSJ would include on its editorial page a frontal assault on a richly diverse group of equal educational opportunity institutions and permit a member of its editorial board to cast the assault in venomous, incendiary language rife with bigoted overtones, undergirded by misstatements of fact and dated references to characterizations by  some known to be opponents of equal opportunity and affirmative inclusion of those who have been denied and continue to be denied equal access to the bounty of this great nation. Despite the   narrow and exclusionary leanings of the WSJ, is has heretofore deemed by many to be a “respectable” member of The Fourth Estate. That it would use its editorial pages to rail against the very institutions that are graduating disproportionate numbers of African Americans in the growth and high needs positions and on whom many WSJ advertisers rely to achieve an excellent and diverse workforce is perplexing.

HBCUs represent just 4% of US universities. They confer 22% of all bachelor degrees earned by African Americans, 24% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans in science and engineering and nearly 35% of all bachelor’s degrees in astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics. Among known U.S. baccalaureate-origin institutions, African American science and engineering doctorate recipients, the top 8, and 20 of the top 50 were HBCUs. 50% of African American teachers graduated from an HBCU. These facts cast a vastly different picture than that painted by Riley. The data demonstrate clearly that HBCUs are doing the heavy lifting of educating black students, especially, in growth and high need disciplines. Increasing numbers of other students who want to attain a degree in a smaller, richly diverse environment, are enrolling and matriculating at HBCUs.   HBCUs have a student population that is 30 % diverse on average,  faculty that are 50% diverse, on average; figures that Historically White Institutions who believe in the benefits of a diverse student body and diverse faculty should envy.

Riley’s assertion that 90% of black students “spurn” HBCUs is another groundless, venomous comment which is contradicted by the data.  HBCUs today enroll nearly 14% of black students in college or university. Those who are not enrolled in an HBCU choose overwhelmingly to attend a minority-serving institution where at least 25% of the students are non-white and not the institutions Riley refers to as “respectable institutions” presumably those where most of the students are not first generation college students, where the students have the highest SAT scores, the institutions have the largest endowments, are the recipients of the largest federal and state “subsidies,” and nonetheless have just 56% of entering students finishing college.

The fact that just 56% of entering college students across the board are finishing and that the nation has dropped to 10th among OECD nations is cause to shake up the higher education system. That America’s HBCUs are continuing to graduate disproportionate numbers of diverse students despite their continued under funding is cause for additional investment in these institutions.

America’s black colleges and universities remain at the creative forefront of American education, offering the tools and skills necessary to prepare students to promote peace at home and abroad; secure our communities and our homeland; meet pressing global and community health care needs; and fight injustice with the power of ideas, and by closing the achievement gap and opening doors of opportunity to those who, in some instances have achieved to high levels in the most competitive environments and in other instances, were ill-served by many of the systems in our communities and the nation. They are continuing to do more for students with fewer resources than any other higher education institutions. As this nation is becoming increasingly colored, with a growth in first generation families and students, with more families of fewer financial means, HBCUs are needed more than ever. They continue to produce sterling talent that is benefitting the Republic immeasurably, not only in material contribution, but also in intellectual, cultural, moral, and spiritual offerings. They are providing students with the intercultural, interpersonal, and political skills with which to compete and thrive in a diverse yet still Balkanized world

Riley is correct that HBCUs are at a crossroads. So, too, are HWCUs, at this time in which proprietary institutions and two-year institutions are the fastest growing higher education segment, and when online education has opened up an entirely new world in higher education. NAFEO has lead and welcomes additional dialogues about the future of the American higher education system and the role of HBCUs, minority-serving institutions, two-year institutions, online education. We invite The Wall street Journal to join us in our next such dialogue at the National Dialogue on Blacks in Higher Education in Washington, D.C., April 5-7, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

HU President Dr. William R. Harvey Responds to WSJ Article Criticizing HBCUs


A recent Wall Street Journal article by Jason Riley questioned the relevance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in today’s society. He complained about President Obama’s conventional approach to HBCUs and opined that “instead of more subsidies and toothless warnings to shape up”, the President and federal government ought to “…remake these schools to meet today’s challenges.”

I cannot speak for the President, but I have spoken to him about HBCUs. An ardent supporter of historically black colleges and universities, President Obama understands and appreciates their value to the nation and the world. The facts justify his support, i.e., representing 4% of all American colleges and universities, HBCUs conferred over 22% of all degrees awarded to African Americans. With only 13% of African Americans in higher education, these colleges awarded nearly 30% of all undergraduate degrees earned by African American students in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines; 50% of all bachelor’s degrees in teacher education received by African American students; and 85% of Doctor of Medicine degrees acquired by African Americans according to statistics compiled by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

Read the entire piece here.

Why Do We Have HBCUs?

October 15, 2010, 11:42 am
By Richard Vedder

Jason Riley is a great writer, and both he and his wife Naomi (who is writing a book on tenure) have interesting and often provocative things to say, such as in Jason’s great recent book on American immigration. Now Jason has stirred things up a bit with his Wall Street Journal piece that argues that historically black colleges and universities (hereafter, HBCUs) are serving black students very poorly, and have become something of an expensive, ineffective anachronism. This has stirred up some anger, and Michael Sorrell, writing with Marybeth Gasman, has used this blog series to argue that Riley is misinformed, inaccurate, etc., etc. Sorrell, by the way, is president of an extremely small black college in Dallas that once achieved something very difficult to accomplish in higher education: it managed to almost lose its accreditation.

Ms. Gasman and Mr. Sorrell say the evidence shows Jason Riley is wrong. I disagree, but even before we get to the evidence, I find the idea of race-based institutions of higher education very disturbing in this day and age. It is interesting that most schools use the cry for “diversity” to justify their racially preferential policies that are designed to reduce racial homogeneity in the student body, arguing there are social if not educational benefits to having more racially mixed student bodies. Yet at the same time we are subsidizing and promoting institutions that celebrate homogeneity –arguing that black self esteem is enhanced when students are educated in largely segregated schools with other blacks (think of the hue and cry if someone tried to establish an institution designed explicitly to serve white persons or even Asians.) In a nation where there is a black president elected largely with white votes, where blacks are found with increasing frequency as Secretary of State, in Congress, as leading entertainers and sports figures, and as CEOs of prestigious companies like American Express, do we really need to have HBCUs? Indeed, isn’t this short of a embarrassment to our nation that prides itself on equality of opportunity and where success historically has been largely  based on meritorious achievement and, as Martin Luther King so memorably said, on “the content of your character”?

But enough opinion. How good are the HBCUs? One way to evaluate this is to look at rankings. I suspect the Harvard, Yale and Princeton of the HBCUs are Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse.  In the US News & World Report rankings,  the top-ranked liberal arts college, Spelman is ranked 59th, which is pretty good but hardly one of the best. Howard, the top HBCU research university, does not crack the top 100 in that list. Not one school is considered a very fine school of the highest distinction.  In the Forbes‘ rankings (full disclosure: I am in charge of compiling them), there are some 610 schools ranked, and not one the HBCUs makes the top half of that list. The best of the HBCUs are considered to be fairly decent but hardly superb institutions. Taken collectively, the 95 or so four year domestic HBCUs have typical six year graduate rates around one-third, compared with well over 50 percent for the general population of schools.  For every student entering one of these schools full time who successfully graduates (albeit in as much as six years), two others drop out.  Lists of the lowest graduation rate schools in the country have disproportionately high representation from the HBCUs.

Proponents of HBCUs would say the low indicators of performance of those schools arises from the fact that students, on average, have lower incomes and poor academic backgrounds than non-HBCU schools –which is true.  Some limited empirical analysis that we have done at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity suggests that this may explain much, but not all, of the relatively poor graduation rates. Even if it explains all of the differential rates, however, it only means that HBCUs are no better than worse than other schools, hardly a justification for continuation of race-centered institutions.

Another issue relates to the amount of subsidies. Howard gets about $235 million from the federal government annually, or roughly $22,225 per student. Most traditional state universities are lucky to get per student subsidies of half that amount, and one-quarter is closer to typical. Would the students be better off if we gave them $22,225 vouchers to attend traditional universities ranked higher than Howard in the rankings? I suspect so.  It is time to rethink the public funding of this anachronism from the past.

I am not proposing simply abolishing these institutions. I simply would suggest that they should not receive special funding because of some race-based status, and that they should accordingly be encouraged to enroll more non-black students. Already some HBCUs, notably two in West Virginia, are in fact no longer predominantly black. Just as all-male bastions like Harvard and Yale started accepting women quite successfully 40 years ago, so I suspect the HBCUs would benefit from expanding their client base.

Lezli Baskerville, President & CEO, National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), Responds to Richard Vedder’s, October 18, 2010 Opinion in The Chronicle of Higher Education “Why Do We Have HBCUs?

In defending WSJ Editorial Board member, Jason Riley’s recent venomous and incendiary assault on the richly diverse group of mission-based equal educational opportunity institutions known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Richard Vedder exposed his ignorance about HBCUs to the same extent as Jason Riley. Vedder railed against race-based institutions of higher education that ‘promote and celebrate homogeneity.’  The reality is that HBCUs are not race-based institutions. They are mission-based higher education institutions, established by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as amended in 1986. HBCUs are legislatively designated as institutions founded before 1964 whose principal mission was and is the education of black Americans. With this mission, unlike most higher education institutions, HBCUs have since their founding been open to all persons who meet their multi faceted admissions criteria, without regard to race, ethnicity, socio-economic strata, religion,  gender (except in the case of the three gender specific HBCUs), or some other non bona fide consideration. Vedder acknowledges that at least two HBCUs are not predominantly black. The facts are that West Virginia State University, Bluefield State University, and Lincoln University of Missouri are not majority black, and Kentucky State University is almost evenly divided among black and other race students. Contrary to Vedder’s suggestion that HBCUs are “homogeneous,” ACT data indicate that HBCUs as a class are the most diverse class of higher education institutions in America. This constellation of 2- and 4-year colleges, universities, graduate and professional schools on average, have 30% student diversity and in excess of 40% faculty diversity.

Not only are HBCUs the most diverse group of colleges and universities, they celebrate and take affirmative steps to attain and maintain diversity. A 2004 National Leadership Institution on, “Maintaining Margins, Missions and Multiculturalism on HBCU Campuses,” co-sponsored by Alcorn State University (ASU), The College Board, Southern Education Foundation, and NAFEO, is just one example of the many activities the HBCU community has undertaken in recent years to maintain its position in the forefront of reaping the educational benefits of diversity. From that National Leadership Institute came a set of Principles and Standards of Good Practice to Achieve Multiculturalism at HBCUs that were debated and adopted by the delegates to the Institute; and subsequently by the NAFEO membership in 2005.

This is not to suggest that HBCUs are or should retreat from their historic missions to educate black Americans. To the contrary. The preamble to the Principles states:

We live in an increasingly diverse nation in a progressively more interdependent and technological, globally constricting world. Today, most new jobs require a postsecondary education. To meet the nation’s employment needs will require training a more diverse and technologically-competent workforce. The projected labor market needs and demographic shifts into 2004 and beyond dictate a re-examination of who will receive and who must be able to access and achieve a postsecondary education.

The number of high school graduates is growing and is becomingly increasingly diverse. By 2007-2008, 43% of graduating seniors will be racial and ethnic minorities. By 2014 approximately 50% of the students “Knocking at the College Door” will be traditionally underrepresented minorities. (WICHE).

Historically and predominately black colleges and universities are among the most diverse colleges and universities (ACT report). To sustain their foremost position in higher education diversity, and retain the edge in preparing students to work and live in a globally interdependent world, HBCUs like Traditionally White Institutions (TWIs) must do more to foster and reap fully the educational benefits of diversity and multiculturalism. HBCUs must transform to shore up their base and capture a broader share of the higher education market.

Not only does Vedder’s piece ignore the above and other HBCU public and private actions that demonstrate clearly that the missions and margins of HBCUs anticipate and seize multiculturalism, he also wrongly suggests that funding for HBCUs is based on a race criteria. Vedder ends his piece by suggesting that while he is not proposing to abolish HBCUs, he is suggesting that they should not receive funding because of some race-based status.  This is further evidence of his lack of clarity about HBCUs. HBCUs receive no funding based on “some race-based status.” The largest amount of federal funding received by HBCUs is formula funding based on annual data indicating that they enroll Pell grant recipients, that their graduates graduate from accredited programs, and that their graduates have enrolled in graduate or professional school within the past five years.

One wonders why at this time in which President Obama has established as a goal having roughly 60% of Americans with a 2-or 4-year degree by 2020, requiring us to educate roughly 500,000 additional Americans by that time, opinion shapers like Richard Vedder and Jason Riley, both of whom work for respected mediums for shaping public opinion, would call into question the need for HBCUs and have as the gravamen of their position, misinformation. While the shift in the higher education landscape such that proprietary and two-year institutions are the fastest growing segment of the market; online education has opened up an entirely new world in higher education; just 56% of entering college students across the board are finishing; and the nation has dropped to 10th among OECD nations, is cause to shake up the entire higher education system, it is perplexing that Richard Vedder and Jason Riley would scapegoat HBCUs for more complex issues. The complexities of the issues in higher education dictate constructive, factually based exchanges.

A thoughtful, factual analysis of the data and circumstances in totality lead to the conclusion that HBCUs are needed as much today as at any time. They are at the creative forefront of American education, offering the tools and skills necessary to prepare students to promote peace at home and abroad; secure our communities and our homeland; meet pressing global and community health care needs; and fight injustice with the power of ideas. They are closing the achievement gap and opening doors of opportunity to those who, in some instances have achieved to high levels in the most competitive environments and in other instances, were ill-served by many of the systems in our communities and the nation. They are continuing to do more for students with fewer resources than any other higher education institutions. They continue to produce sterling talent that is benefitting the Republic immeasurably, not only in material contribution, but also in intellectual, cultural, moral, and spiritual offerings. They are providing students with the intercultural, interpersonal, and political skills with which to compete and thrive in a diverse yet still Balkanized world. They are doing an exceptionally good job in the growth and high needs areas.

Although HBCUs are just 4% of American colleges and universities they are conferring 22% of all bachelor degrees earned by African Americans, 24% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans in science and engineering and nearly 35% of all bachelor’s degrees in astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics. Among known U.S. baccalaureate-origin institutions for African American science and engineering doctorate recipients, the top 8, and 20 of the top 50 are HBCUs. Fifty percent of African American teachers graduated from an HBCU. These facts paint a vastly different picture than that cast by Jason Riley. Contrary to the recommendation of Richard Vedder that the nation stop funding HBCUs, these data demonstrate the prudence and wisdom of investing more public resources in these equal educational opportunity institutions.

NAFEO invites and encourages Jason Riley, Richard Vedder and other opinion shapers to join the presidents and chancellors of America’s HBCUs and PBIs in Washington, D.C., on April 5, 2011, during NAFEO’s National Dialogue on Blacks in Higher Education, for a thoughtful, constructive, data driven dialogue about the role for HBCUs in America’s shifting higher education landscape.

And Still We Rise: One HBCU President’s Perspective

Huffington Post – October 7, 2010
By Beverly Daniel Tatum
President, Spelman College

As President Obama was celebrating the contributions of the nation’s 105 historically black colleges and marking his pledge to invest another $850 million over the next decade, I received the exciting news that a team of two Spelman College computer science students won the grand prize in the 2010 AT&T Big Mobile on Campus Challenge for the application they designed, joining a small circle of past winners from Harvard and Stanford. I also received messages from two recent graduates, one studying women and democracy in India on a Fulbright Fellowship, the other working to end child prostitution in Northern Thailand as a Luce Fellow. The achievements of our students are a daily source of pride and inspiration for me. Clearly there is a disconnect between the reality I see every day as president of the oldest historically black college for women and the assumptions outsiders make about what we do and why we do it.

Spelman was founded in 1881 to educate women of African descent ready and able to uplift the communities around them. That mission was born out of necessity and continues today out of commitment to a vision of education that places young black women at the center of the educational enterprise. To be at the center, rather than on the margins, is a place of empowerment, and it is that desire for empowerment that leads more than 5,000 young women a year to apply for 530 spaces in the first-year class, making Spelman College among the most selective of women’s colleges in the country.

It has been suggested by some commentators that the fact that average SAT scores are lower at Spelman than at equally selective institutions is an indicator of lower academic quality. I would suggest perhaps it is an indicator of lower average family income. SAT scores are more highly correlated with family income than almost any other variable — the higher the income, the higher the score is likely to be. According to a 2007 article in Postsecondary Education Opportunity, Spelman College is now educating more Pell-Grant eligible students than any other selective liberal arts college in the nation, except Berea College. Of approximately 2,200 students at Spelman that year, 885 of them were Pell-Grant recipients, 40% of our total population. Ivy League institutions with thousands more undergraduates are educating far fewer Pell-Grant recipients. In 2008, Harvard had 543 among an undergraduate population of 6,700, Yale had 469 among 5,350, Princeton only 264 among 4,719. Despite a much smaller endowment than these giants, it is Spelman College that is doing the important work of providing social mobility to talented students like these every year.

With a graduation rate of approximately 80% — among the highest in the nation — we have delivered on our promise and opened wide the doors of prestigious graduate school and employment opportunities. Further, we have defied the low expectations for women and minorities in science by graduating almost a third of our students with degrees in the STEM fields, serving as a major pipeline of black female engineers, mathematicians and health professionals. In the midst of our nation’s education crisis, we are a beacon of hope and could do even more with additional resources.

I know that not every HBCU shares the same profile as Spelman College, nor does every majority institution look like Harvard. Yet it is important to understand each institution in its own context — its history, the region it serves, and the service it still provides to a nation in need of every source of talent. HBCUs represent only 2% of colleges and universities in the U.S. but are the source of approximately 23% of all black college graduates, and an even higher percentage of those pursuing careers in the sciences. I commend President Obama for his commitment to HBCUs because he knows what every HBCU president knows — our nation cannot achieve its educational goals without the full participation of our vital institutions.

The Root Interview: Julianne Malveaux on the Importance of HBCUs

By: Harriette Cole
Posted: November 2, 2010 at 6:39 PM
Contributing editor Harriette Cole visited Bennett College, one of two HBCUs for women, and found a college president fired up about educating today’s young black woman.

Educator Dr. Julianne Malveaux has long been known as a firebrand. Armed with a doctorate in economics from MIT, she’s made a career out of interpreting the American economic landscape as it relates to African-American life. (Her latest book is Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.) Three years ago, the economist refocused her lens to become the 15th president of the 137-year-old Bennett College for Women. Moving from the buttoned-up, politically savvy nation’s capital to the conservative family town of Greensboro, N.C., she hit the ground running.

In a way, she had to. HBCUs have been under fire for years, often not being able to attract the best students or raise the funds required to finance their basic needs. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed criticizing what the editorial writer saw as the deficits of HBCUs, making the case that many should be closed rather than pumped with the additional $850 million that President Obama has earmarked for them over the next 10 years.

Bennett has not been immune to the challenges and sometimes harsh realities facing HBCUs. It was founded in 1873, in the basement of St. Matthews A.M.E. Church by former slaves who had made their way to Greensboro along the Underground Railroad. The school was repurposed to be a college exclusively for women in 1926. While it has consistently been a small campus with the mission of nurturing its students, the college has not always had the funding, nor the organization, it has needed. Former Spelman College president Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole became president of Bennett in 2003 and was considered a savior of sorts, spearheading a campaign to upgrade the financing and academic intentions of the school. She established the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity & Inclusion Institute to expand the college’s global awareness.

Even with Cole’s efforts during her four-year tenure, Bennett was still in need. Malveaux says that she inherited an $8 million debt, which made it tough for school officials to proceed with much-needed construction projects. The graduation rate is still relatively low; about 38 percent of the student body typically graduates within six years. (The average graduation rate among HBCUs is 32.5 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Education study, compared to a national rate of 55.9 percent.)

Malveaux takes umbrage at the criticism, arguing that comparing HBCUs with traditional colleges is unfair. “If you didn’t have historically black colleges, you’d have to invent them,” she says. HBCUs, she argues, serve promising underprivileged students that other universities don’t. She says that the student body is comprised of a diverse array of students, including those students who could easily gain admittance to the nation’s top-tier universities — among those a candidate for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. But she acknowledges that there are students who will likely only be accepted at HBCUs.

“Which colleges accept young people who come with academic deficiencies?” she asks. “We call our students who come with lower than a 2.4 ‘emerging scholars.’ They’re not there yet, but they will get there.” For such students, Malveaux explains, the school gives them extra academic attention, from a tutoring center to a summer program to professors who provide intensive, one-on-one attention. “You’re not going to get that anywhere else,” she says. “You’ll go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a great school to be sure, and get swallowed. And that’s just the end of that.”

As Malveaux sees it, dismissing the importance of HBCUs is “part of this whole post-racial fallacy that a lot of people have embraced, that we have a black president and so being black doesn’t matter anymore. Historically black colleges don’t matter anymore. It’s just not the case.” Black colleges, she says, are an important part of our history, history that should not just be thrown away. In the post Civil War era, HBCUs played a vital role in educating former slaves; during slavery, in many states, it was illegal to educate slaves. Says Malveaux, “In North Carolina, the law read: ‘to teach a slave to read is to excite dissatisfaction to the detriment of the general population.‘ Imagine that, that the general population would be threatened by you and me. So when you understand that, you must embrace HBCUs.”

Today, many students attending black colleges face unique challenges. Many are the first in their families to attend college. Many of them struggle to pay tuition; one Bennett student, for example, can only afford to attend one semester a year.

And then there’s the issue of the nation’s public education system, which is failing to graduate students with the requisite skills to succeed. According to Malveaux, the average inner-city student attends school less than the average suburban student. A student attending school in urban school attends fewer than 1,000 hours a year, while on the other side of the country, a student in suburban Houston goes to school 1,300 hours per year, she says, explaining that part of the reason for the disparity from one location to another is budget. The bottom line: Many students come to Bennett not fully prepared for college.

Her mantra: “Bennett is an oasis where we educate and celebrate and develop 21st century leaders and global thinkers.” To make good on her credo, the president insists that four areas be given special focus in the college’s curriculum: entrepreneurship, leadership, global studies and communications. To inspire the students to imagine greatness for themselves, she regularly invites leaders like Cornell West to speak to the 800-member student body each week at the Academic Cultural Enrichment Series (ACES).

Meanwhile, Bennett professors hold a weekly roundtable discussion. “We come together weekly to talk through ideas and learn from each other,” says Tamara Jeffries, a former Essence magazine editor who now teaches magazine writing and editing at the college. On a recent visit to the campus, The Root sat in on one discussion where a dozen students and several professors gathered to talk about making print magazines in this age of the Internet. (Bennett has its own monthly magazine now, called Belle.)

Implementing college-wide change requires money. As chief fundraiser, Malveaux worked with the Department of Education to redesign the college’s debt. She also secured a $20 million loan to fund, among other things, five construction projects — a new academic building, an honors dorm that features suite living, a global learning center, an intergenerational center and the transformation of an old heating plant into a media and communications building. This is the first time that there has been any construction on Bennett’s campus in 28 years.

To Julianne Malveaux, all of the politicking, strategizing and negotiating is worth it. “If you know the African-American story, you understand that education has the power to transform lives. That whether or not you’ve gone to an HBCU or to a predominately white institution, that exposure to education transforms you from what you could have been to who you actually are.”

Painting A More Accurate Picture of HBCUs

From Washington Afro – October 14, 2010
By Dr. David Wilson
President, Morgan State University

I read with great interest Jason Riley’s commentary on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) [“Black Colleges Need a New Mission,” Sept. 28, 2010] in which he refers to Black colleges as “academically inferior.” Mr. Riley uses data convenient to his case that HBCUs should be shuttered by citing the number of Blacks that now attend these schools and rankings comparing them with some of America’s most elite colleges and universities. His data are cited without context and neither paint a clear picture of HBCUs, nor acknowledge the basis for their continued existence.

HBCUs continue to graduate a disproportionate share of African Americans in this country. If he took the time to adequately research his topic, Mr. Riley would find that the majority of today’s leaders of color, including many members of Congress, entrepreneurs, bankers and, indeed, college presidents, are graduates of HBCUs. Despite their small number, these schools still account for nearly 25 percent of all degrees conferred to African Americans, according to Hale, a recognized expert in higher education.  In addition, they have been the launching pads for three-fourths of African Americans who hold doctorate degrees, three-fourths of Black officers in the military, and four-fifths of African-American federal judges.  In fact, what Mr. Riley fails to tell his readers is that 50 percent of African-American faculty in predominantly White research universities received their bachelor’s degrees at an HBCU (Hale, 2006).

I have attended and worked at a number of traditionally White institutions (TWIs) and can testify to the fact that little stands between them and HBCUs, save that which a large endowment will buy. I have found HBCUs, such as Morgan State University in Baltimore where I am now president, to be quality rich institutions, leading their states and, in some cases, the country in many fields. For example, Morgan is ranked second in Maryland in the percentage of its students who graduate and go on to graduate school – and that is ahead of the state’s flagship institution, the University of Maryland. Morgan also is a national leader in the number of Fulbright Scholars it produces. This does not sound like an institution that should be closed. And, I am absolutely certain that our 35,000 alumni, many of whom would not have received a college education without a Morgan State University, would concur.

I challenge Mr. Riley to compare HBCUs with other schools of their size and nature, and not just to the most elite of colleges and universities in the country. If he is going to compare HBCUs to the Harvards and MITs of the world, then he also must compare those schools with the smaller, less well-endowed, traditionally White institutions. As a member of President Obama’s Board of Advisors on historically Black colleges and universities, I know that what the president is really trying to do is give HBCUs access to that which will help them compete in today’s marketplace – better marketing, management assistance, fundraising expertise and more. President Obama understands what Mr. Riley clearly does not; that is, without every genre of higher education seeking ways to educate more Americans, our nation will continue to fall farther behind the rest of the world.

Dr. David Wilson is president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md.

Revitalizing America’s Historically Black Colleges

Wall Street Journal – Letter to the Editor
October 4, 2010

Jason Riley challenges President Barack Obama to avoid “a conventional approach to higher education, and to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in particular” (“Black Colleges Need a New Mission,” op-ed, Sept. 28). But the president is already taking the unconventional approach of pushing for more strategic investments in HBCUs because he recognizes that, while HBCUs are a mere 4% of the nation’s four-year colleges and universities, they confer over 22% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans. In 2007-2008, they conferred 34% of all African-Americans’ bachelor’s degrees in physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics and biology. In 2008-2009, 10 HBCUs produced 13% of all new African-American teachers. The fact is, we need HBCUs to reach many of our key national goals, including having the best educated and most competitive and diverse workforce in the world by 2020.

HBCUs face big challenges. That is why President Obama began an annual HBCU conference this year, calling on HBCU leadership to improve graduation rates, and later saying “we’ve got a lot more work to do.” We need open, honest and robust conversation around these important issues in order to ensure that our HBCUs continue to lift our communities and strengthen our country.

John Silvanus Wilson Jr.
Executive Director
White House Initiative on
Historically Black Colleges and Universities