A recent post by David Leonhardt on “the declining payoff from black colleges” caught my interest. I went to an HBCU (historically black college and university) in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I often refer to my undergraduate years as “the best years of my life.” I grew up there. I learned a lot about myself, my strengths, and my weaknesses. I was encouraged, challenged, and supported. My alma mater was all things that I expected a college to be, and, in my opinion, a good investment. My parents went to an HBCU. So did my brother, sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, etc. It was the top choice for all of us, and we all have gone on to do some pretty cool things. So when I hear folks questioning the relevancy of black colleges, which seems to come up every couple of years or so, I rarely engage.
But the most recent iteration of the discussion, in the comments following Leonhardt’s post and here and here, has me thinking more about the issue. And not because I think the question about relevance is a valid one. But more so because the question itself, and the consistent attention to it, clearly stunts the larger and much more important conversation: how best to educate traditionally underserved students.
Every time someone puts forth a critique (objective or not) of black colleges and other minority-serving institutions, the conversation turns toward whether or not such colleges are relevant. The shift leaves no room for a real discussion. Someone will argue, “Yes, they are relevant. Look at Oprah Winfrey” (a Tennessee State graduate). Someone else will argue, “No, they aren’t. We have an African American president.” The result is a stalemate. No side wins — not the cheerleaders, not the naysayers, and most of all not current students or prospective ones.
Oprah and President Obama aside, many students see these schools as good options for a number of valid reasons: program offerings, open admissions, low costs, reputation, location, demographics, etc. And many of these prospective students — especially those with low-incomes and those that are the first in their families to go to college — will help us meet what is now a national priority: having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
A more serviceable question, therefore, is not one of black colleges’ relevancy, but of their reality. Some black colleges are outperforming colleges of all types in recruiting and graduating low-income students. Some have overall graduation rates above the norm (even, perhaps, with large numbers of students needing remediation). Some are finding creative ways to keep their students out of loan default. And some are producing a large percentage of students in the STEM fields, areas where African American students have traditionally struggled.
HBCUs are clearly relevant. They are succeeding at the most difficult and pressing higher education challenges we’re facing as a nation. And just like in all education sectors — private liberal arts colleges, public research universities, for-profit colleges, elementary charter schools, etc. — there are some poor performers. But there are some standouts. We can learn from these successes to improve the less successful HBCUs and, just as importantly, to improve all institutions that serve diverse students.
As we asked last year at an Education Sector event, “What can we learn from minority-serving institutions about improving student success?” To have a real discussion, one that will lead to meeting national priorities and improving our higher education system, I think that’s the relevant question.