This was a good season for education. NBC launched “Education Nation,” its intensive, ongoing coverage of education in America. Speaking before a Texas audience, President Obama called education “the economic issue of our time,” and said that he was absolutely committed to making sure that “here in America…nobody is denied a chance to make the most of their lives just because they can’t afford it.” Back in Washington, he convened a summit to consider the role that community colleges play in college completion. The Department of Education awarded $330 million in “Race to the Top” grants to public schools that are making their schools better.
But while most people were working to help more Americans get a good education, a few were working to tear down a community of institutions, America’s historically black colleges and universities, that are getting the job done. Working in fact, to make sure that fewer, not more, Americans, and fewer African-Americans in particular, can go to college.
It started with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “Once an essential response to racism,” wrote Journal writer Jason Riley, HBCUs “are now academically inferior.” Citing sources more than thirty years old, Riley said that HBCUs should be turned into community colleges, or turned over to for-profit corporations. Riley’s motion was seconded by an Ohio University professor, Richard Vedder. Blogging at the Chronicle for Higher Education, Vedder called Riley “a great writer” and HBCUs an “embarrassment to our nation.”
Both Riley and Vedder are as wrong as they can be. HBCUs represent only 4 percent of all 4-year institutions but produce 21 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans. A National Science Foundation study found that the top eight colleges producing African-Americans who went on to get Ph.Ds. in science and engineering over the previous decade were HBCUs — ahead of Harvard, UC-Berkeley, MIT, Brown and Stanford. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from an HBCU. So, more recently, did the president of Brown University, the Surgeon General of the United States, and the president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. HBCUs have produced Rhodes scholars and host chapters of Phi Beta Kappa.
But don’t take my word for it. Dr. MaryBeth Gasman, an associate professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has called the arguments of Riley and his sources “flawed” and “ill-informed.” “A fair assessment of the work of HBCUs places them side by side with historically white institutions (HWIs) with similar student populations,” she writes. “Such an evaluation would show that in many cases HBCUs are doing a better job of educating African-American students. Moreover, they have done so with far fewer resources than their HWI counterparts.”
Are there HBCUs that, like other colleges large and small, need to perform at higher levels — and need, in particular, to increase their graduation rates? Without a doubt. Like every institution, HBCUs need to be accountable to their students and the nation for their performance. And student retention and graduation rates are an Achilles’ heel for many small, under-resourced colleges.
The United Negro College Fund, the organization I head, and its member HBCUs are pursuing that imperative through the UNCF Institute for Capacity Building, an innovative institutional improvement collaboration that has produced measurable results in alumni fundraising, applicant pools, and graduation rates. The positive results do more than strengthen those colleges. They demonstrate that, given the kind of targeted, results oriented opportunities to improve, HBCUs can enroll and graduate even more of the students the nation needs. Greater investment would yield even greater results.
If we followed Mr. Riley’s and Prof. Vedder’s advice, however, that HBCUs should be dismantled and disinvested in, instead of building on HBCUs’ record of accomplishment to support the aspirations of even larger numbers of students, we would be tearing up a bridge over which hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, many of them the first in their families to attend college, have walked to good jobs, good lives and service to their communities. But maybe that’s just what they — at least Prof. Vedder — think should happen.
A few months ago, I opposed Prof. Vedder in a public TV debate about whether the country needs more college graduates. I joined Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, in saying that our economy and our country needed more college graduates—graduates who would meet communities’ needs for teachers, doctors and business leaders and the country’s needs for the scientists and engineers who will maintain our competitiveness in the global economy.
Prof. Vedder was on the other side, the side that thought that our economy and our country already have enough college graduates. The side that would slam the door behind Americans who already have a college education and the kinds of lives that a college degree qualifies them for. The side that would thus lock out millions of Americans who do not have college degrees — a group of which African Americans, Hispanic Americans and other Americans of color are a large and growing part.
Today as in times past, HBCUs give the best and the brightest an education which can catapult them to careers of success, service and distinction — the NSF study attests to that.
They also serve bright and promising students who have been under-served and under-prepared by the mainstream K-12 education system. At HBCUs, many of these students find the environment in which — finally — they can flourish. John Jackson, a graduate of HBCU (and UNCF member institution) Xavier University in New Orleans and now president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, has said that as a black student coming out of the Chicago public schools with a 2.5 GPA, he needed teachers who were “smarter” than those at elite private colleges, teachers who could see and cultivate his potential.
The next John Jackson — perhaps the next Martin Luther King, Jr. — may be sitting in an elementary school classroom today, or studying for high school mid-term exams. Jason Riley and Richard Vedder don’t think we need the HBCUs that nurtured their potential and that of so many others.
Millions of students, thousands of employers, and the president of the United States disagree. Why? Because they know that today and tomorrow, as in the past, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.