Payscale.com recently released its annual rankings on American colleges and universities, lining schools of all sizes, missions and affluence up in one large pen to be trotted out in lines divided by major, parties, research and graduate earning potential. Historically Black colleges and universities, as they tend to do on most lists like this, trended towards the bottom in the return on investment category.
HBCUs have little to offer if the conversation revolves around students who don't graduate, those who don't earn high salaries, and those who don't pay on their student loans. In fact, most colleges, historically Black, predominantly white or otherwise, would be uncomfortable in that kind of discussion, because all schools are trying to find ways to recruit richer, smarter students who will earn a degree in four years and give money back to the school following the 15 to 20-year span it typically takes to realize full earning potential.
But if the conversation is about social mobility, community development and current wars against poverty and racial inequality, there is no institution in the world that stands up to the output of historically Black colleges. In any historic or present context, HBCUs stand alone as the institutions best equipped to take students from any economic, racial or cultural circumstance and create within them industry-ready professionals driven to success.
For several public and private HBCUs in North Carolina and Georgia, Payscale's figures suggest that a person is likely to have a better return on investment as a high school graduate, than as an alumnus of certain HBCUs, because their earnings as HBCU graduates over 20 years will not eclipse what they will owe in student debt incurred by attending these schools.
And that would be okay, except that Payscale's survey only counted graduates who only have bachelor's degrees and who are not self-employed. It also doesn't account for industries that typically pay lower salaries for employees at entry and middle management levels, like secondary and collegiate education, social work, journalism, public health, community organizing, and agriculture.
You know, just the most popular HBCU academic programs outside of the money-making programs like engineering, business, law and medical science.
If readers are industrious enough to parse through Payscale's other data sets, they will find a virtual celebration of the HBCU gift and curse - a sea of red, green, orange and yellow dots indicating that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to graduate from anywhere.
And the higher the number of black students on your campus, the higher the chances are for graduation rates to be below 50 percent.
'Poor' and 'Black' tend to not to be the stuff Ivy Leagues and large PWIs dream about in their admissions and recruitment philosophies, but are at the core of the HBCU mission. It's a mission so foreign to most colleges and universities, elitists and racists have given it a pet name - academic mismatch. And they've become crafty enough to use it in arguments against affirmative action.
Education of underserved and underrepresented populations has buoyed Black communities and served the nation well for more than 150 years, and HBCUs have only over the last 15 years emerged as a thorn in the side of predominantly white colleges scrambling to attract as many tuition dollars as possible, race and economics aside.
Since all colleges and universities will have to contend with the ROI question sooner than later, it is great practice for HBCUs to get used to tuition investment scrutiny. Given their mission, there is a rough road ahead for HBCUs in trying to reconcile low graduation rates, high loan default percentages, and low entry-level salaries for those who graduate against the rising definitions of value in higher education.
But HBCUs continue to specialize in tangible metrics which never seem to make the popular rankings. Imagine if first-generation HBCU graduates were surveyed on the number of children they sent to college years after their matriculation? Or how many returned to underserved communities to work and live as an example of the power of education?
Imagine if rankings could measure the amount of research and development implemented in Black communities where, if not for the presence of HBCUs, there would be no sustainable systems for public health and environmental analysis, economic stimulus by the number of Black workers employed by HBCUs and the dollars spent by Black students at surrounding businesses?
Imagine the political climate for Black communities in the south were it not for HBCU students, faculty and staff continuing to mobilize voting drives and oppose voter discrimination? What about youth in Black communities who are mentored by HBCU students from similar backgrounds and circumstances?
Those are the things that don't show up in ROI surveys and best college rankings. Sometimes they do, but often they don't, and often it serves as a damaging blow to the HBCU narrative. If there's no way of escaping the surface numbers review of what makes a college degree valuable, then yes, HBCUs might be looked upon as the worst waste of money in higher ed next to online for-profit colleges.
But, no one who has earned higher education looks at anything for surface value. And if the nation is determined to 'throw away money,' HBCUs with an authentic mission of providing access and opportunity to all kinds of students are a great place to aim.