Black Colleges and the Achievement Gap: Can HBCUs Be the Answer to Closing the Gap?

While the impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) on our country and its history is unquestioned, the future of many struggling HBCUs remains in doubt. Dr. John Wilson, Executive Director of the White House Initiative, began their recent summit with the declaration that "HBCUs should be cathedrals of excellence [for our nation's students]." With those words, summit attendees discussed topics ranging from how to secure a federal contract to how to prepare to be a good Trustee Board member. Unfortunately, a key topic missing from this year's summit was how HBCUs are both a source and can be a solution to the growing Black-White achievement gap. Can the role HBCUs play in preparing educators and remediating students be what's missing from the education reform debate?

While education reformers struggle with how to improve teacher quality in schools that serve predominately Black students, it's important to recognize that HBCUs produce approximately half of all African-American teachers. Regrettably, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) rates HBCU teacher preparation programs as some the weakest in the country as measured by how well graduates perform on teacher certification exams -- which, research shows, might be attributed to cultural bias. While the 105 HBCUs represent just 3 percent of the nation's institutions of higher learning, they graduate nearly 20 percent of African Americans who earn undergraduate degrees. HBCUs present an opportunity to be well positioned to shape how we close achievement gaps even before they begin. Washington Monthly magazine states that HBCUs outperform non-HBCUs in their education of African-Americans as well as their ability to improve the economic status of low-income students. We know that there are HBCUs which are setting a standard of excellence for students, though we must determine what they are doing right and replicate it in our struggling schools. In a movement with a growing scarcity of resources and even less time to waste, identifying opportunities to have the greatest impact on educational achievement are essential. Schools of education can reform their programs by firstly how they promote application of skills over theory, foster cultural competence, and increase the academic rigor and competitiveness at which they admit students.

With the majority of public school students in economically stable metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C. being people of color, the shortcomings of the K-12 education system in the region disproportionately affect schools that serve that demographic. Unfortunately, the growing achievement gaps in Washington, D.C. and Maryland make it even less likely that students attending HBCUs are prepared on day one of college. For example, approximately 42 percent of African Americans require remediation after graduating from high school. Of those Americans remediated in college, three out of four will not graduate from college within eight years of enrolling. Due to the significant impact of remediation, our HBCUs are in a unique position to benefit from reforms in how we remediate our students. With over half of all HBCUs having graduation rates at 33 percent or lower, according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, poorly prepared applicants coupled with outdated remediation programs are having a negative impact on the number of enrollees who graduate. Reforms in remediation programs include allowing students to only take the math or reading module for the specific skill they failed on their entrance exam rather than an entire remedial course with content they have previously mastered.

Fortunately, there are examples of how HBCUs can actively contribute to quality K-12 public education. For example, Morgan State University in Baltimore City created a free Science, Engineering, Math and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) for students and their parents. Coppin State University in Baltimore City has helped create Rosemont Academy, a public charter elementary and middle school that allows Coppin State students to get real-time experience in communities that can benefit the most from the most well-trained teachers. Morgan State's SEMAA program effectively serves to address perceived barriers to student success like low educational attainment of the parental or cost. Coppin State's effort to give future teachers real life experience in schools with the most need both prepares their students to be impact on day one as a teacher which will reduce the likelihood they leave the profession within five years.

For all the despair created by falling enrollment at even our highest performing HBCUs, there is hope. An HBCU president said, "We remediate half our freshman class but our motto remains 'we take you as you are, but we don't graduate you as you came.'" His words have stuck with me. Reforming public education will ensure our HBCUs become the cathedrals Dr. John Wilson envisioned, and fortunately, the right reforms will make our public schools cathedrals of excellence too.