In the history of advertising, very few catch phrases have become as iconic as the United Negro College Fund’s, “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing To Waste”. With commercials featuring moving images of young African-American students unable to attend one of the 39 historically black colleges and universities that UNCF serves, simply because of a lack of funds, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing To Waste” became the rallying cry for anyone interested in donating and fundraising for the future of black students. And on the fortieth anniversary of the slogan’s debut, UNCF is celebrating with a gala designed to raise funds to help seniors who need help wrapping up their final expenses before graduating. And while “A Mind is a Terrible Thing To Waste” remains an effective program for thousands of black students at HBCUs, there is a question whether the HBCU structure will survive the 21st Century, or whether it will be surpassed by other college options available for black students.
When the UNCF was formed in 1944 by Dr. Frederick Patterson at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), the idea was to get donors to fund the educations of black students attending member HBCU schools. These newly educated HBCU students would go on to form the backbone of the African-American middle class. And the UNCF campaign has been wildly successful, raising over $3 billion dollars in donations, and funding over 350,000 students since 1944.
While all of that is important, the very HBCU structures that the UNCF support is under attack, both from within and externally. Compared to US colleges and universities nationwide, HBCUs have dismal student loan default rates, with over 50 of the 105 HBCU schools having ten percent of their students defaulting. HBCU alumni giving rates are dismal, with schools like Prairie View A&M reporting a total donation rate of $1.79 million dollars in 2007. Compare that to the University of Pennsylvania, which raised $392 million during the same time period, and you can see that many HBCUs would die if they had to survive on donations from their alums. But the most damning internal attack is that HBCUs have low graduation rates, with 42 percent of their students graduating, compared to the 90 percent of black students at schools like Stanford and Princeton. This opens up HBCUs to competition from non-HBCU schools.
Not only are more African-American students going to predominately white colleges and universities, but convenient online distant learning colleges like the University of Phoenix, has surpassed HBCUs as the largest producer of black college graduates in the country. Thirty-nine percent of University of Phoenix graduates are African-Americans, and while the for profit college is in direct competition for HBCUs, the University of Phoenix has the backing of powerful African-Americans like Rev. Jesse Jackson.
And their very existence as predominately African-American institutions are under attack, as Southern governors continue to question the need to support a separate black college educational system developed during segregation. Merging struggling black colleges with nearby white colleges in order to create more sustainable schools is gaining more and more support. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has ordered a study of merging the HBCU Southern University of New Orleans with the predominately white University of New Orleans, and then moving the new institution from the black Southern University system to the white Louisiana State University system. And in Georgia, white lawmakers have proposed merging the black Albany State and Savannah State with local white colleges.
All of this leads to questions about not only will HBCUs survive, but whether they should they survive. It’s not good enough in the 21st Century to simply rely on the old adage that any college education is good enough for an underserved black student population. The alumni giving, the student loan defaults, and the low graduation rates all point to institutions that ripe for reformation or culling. Many HBCUs are in desperate need of reform, relevance, and most importantly, innovation. For too long, the schools have suffered from a sort of stasis, with administrators who were too comfortable proclaiming that their schools were not only educational institutions, but were families.
That HBCU “bond” allowed them to turn a blind eye to the dysfunction that was being institutionalized with each generation of HBCU students. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost as the internal and external forces are putting pressure on HBCUs to either reform quickly or die. A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste was and is a brilliant slogan for HBCUs who’ve historically provided the backbone of college education for blacks in this country. But unless these institutions look toward the future with ideas that are entrepreneurial, innovative, and most importantly, revolutionary, then they run the risk of being as anachronistic as the word “negro” in the United Negro College Fund. And that indeed would be the true waste of brilliant minds needing a place to flourish.