More than any other topic related to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), graduation rates are the subject of constant media attention -- especially those pieces penned by op-ed writers. Critics writing for The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education and even The Huffington Post lambast HBCUs for their graduation rates.
Believe me, I'm concerned about national graduation rates, as well. At 55.5 percent (six-year) nationally, we could be doing a lot better. However, HBCUs get unfair treatment when it comes to discussions of graduation rates, and here is why:
- Most HBCUs are in Southern states. All but four of the Southern states have graduation rates below the national average. In addition to a number of other factors, many students in Southern states lack access to high-quality public schools. Regional context matters.
Instead of singling out HBCUs as a whole when discussing graduation rates, the media, scholars and op-ed writers should tackle the underlying issues that have long led to inequity in higher education -- issues such as unequal funding and lack of adequate K-12 preparation. And, when discussions are had, they should compare HBCUs to like institutions with similar student populations. It's important to be critical of institutions when they are not graduating students, but it's also important to be fair in those criticisms.
Lastly, once the comparisons are fair, HBCU leaders need to look closely at their graduation rates and make it a priority to increase them at a steady pace. Benchmarking against similarly populated institutions (be they HBCUs or PWIs) that have achieved better graduation success can be an effective method of making significant change. The best way to keep critics quiet is to show significant gains in student success. HBCUs can be true to their historic mission of serving the underserved and also be shining examples of the best strategies for educating African-American students.