President Obama set the goal for the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 — and then appointed John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. to help reach it as executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. With two HCBUs recently ranked with America’s worst graduation rates, Wilson works as a liaison with the executive branch and to strengthen these scholastic institutions by changing the narrative of success from “surviving” to “thriving.”

John Silvanus Wilson is making history … by emphasizing a rhetoric of greatness. An alumnus of Morehouse College, America’s only all-male historically black university, Wilson embraces the his alma mater’s culture of high achievement, but realizes that similar institutions lack the finances to resolve some of their biggest issues – low faculty salaries, insufficient financial aid, and poor facilities. The funding of even the wealthiest black colleges is a fraction of that of the leading American universities, and Wilson advocates an overhaul. As executive director of the initiative, he plans to expand collaboration beyond the current 32 federal agencies, as well as private and philanthropic business, to reinvigorate the endowment of HBCUs. But he also encourages rebranding — a reassessment of the value proposition of what drives students to colleges, focusing on a specialty program or niche that allows his target universities to compete with the best American schools, and not just fellow HBCUs.

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What’s next for John?

With the goal set to raise graduation rates from 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020, one of Wilson’s stepping stones will be to provide training to program administrators at HBCUs, directing them on how to best secure federal research grants themselves. The White House initiative has a technical assistance conference planned for April at Alabama A&M University to equip educators with resources to gain funding, targeting leadership in areas such as research, athletics, career planning, and institutional advancement.

In his own words …

“This is about America, and therefore any institution, black or white, that is helping Americans to get an education and contribute more to society and get us out of this hole needs to not only to survive, but needs to thrive,” Wilson told Inside Higher Ed in 2009.

A little-known fact …

In 2010, the United States had listed 105 HBCUs, which serve more than 300,000 students.

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