In the mid 1980s, Bill Cosby's highly popular television program, A Different World and Spike Lee's influential film School Daze promoted a complimentary image of black colleges and universities as rigorous institutions of higher learning where black students could be free to pursue the fruits of a college education in a welcoming and nurturing environment among people with the same cultural background and values.
In more recent years, the image of the HBCUs has faded, as budget cuts, aging buildings and failing infrastructures, not to mention the preference of many students to attend other colleges and universities, have undercut the once vital role many of these schools played in educating and uplifting the black community.
Many have begun to speculate what the future of these institutions will be in light of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In an age where numbers matter and funding is largely driven by statistics and other tangible measures of performance, appeals made on behalf of legacy, which was once one of the bedrock defenses for maintaining HBCUs, are far less compelling.
Recent observations by John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the head of the White House initiative on HBCUs seem to support the naysayers. In 2010 for instance, Wilson struggled to articulate White House support for and the necessity of HBCUs in achieving President Obama's goal to improve education by 2020, while trying to explain away a far from respectable 37 percent six-year graduation rate, among 83 of the nation's 105 four-year HBCUs. While Wilson was quick to acknowledge funding as one of the principle problems fueling the low completion rate, as black students continue to be forced to leave college for lack of tuition and/or in order to work to help support their families, (something with which many of our Jackie Robinson Foundation students have had to struggle), a strategy for the future will have to include more than tapping funding sources that are growing smaller by the decade.
Is it fair to single out the nation's HBCUs when other colleges and universities are struggling as well? Perhaps not, but predominately white institutions are not nearly as dependent on charitable contributions and government funding and, as long as graduation rates remain low, the relative impact of such money on the achievement gap will be minimal, at best putting HBCUs in the crosshairs.
Perhaps even more damning than the dismal graduation rate was the fact that the national college graduation rate for black students generally was four points higher than for students at HBCUs, challenging the deeply held notion that HBCUs are better suited to help black students finish school. Add to this complaints shared by recent graduates of HBCUS and HBCU faculty and staff about everything from excessive teaching loads, to antiquated classrooms and limited technology, and one can't help but ask the question should the black community be addressing this problem more aggressively?
The best of the HBCUs can compete on every objective level. In 2011, Howard University, which was once referred to as "The Black Harvard" and which consistently ranked in the nation's top 100 universities, still managed a respectable rank of #104 . Atlanta-based Spelman College, meanwhile, topped all HBCU's coming in at #59 among National Liberal Arts Colleges according to U.S. News and World Report. Morehouse, Tuskegee and Hampton also mustered respectable rankings, but then the drop off from these elite schools to the vast majority is startling. After the top 12 most remained unranked or were listed as "rank unpublished."
There are several issues to be explored: Should black leaders and educators hold a summit on the state of the HBCUs and begin to tackle these issues before they come back to bite in the form of mass closures? Could all the resources so widely dispersed now among 105 schools actually be used to greater effect in improving the best HBCUS and raising their competitiveness and graduation rates? I would welcome others' views.