Why Historically Black Colleges and Universities Can and Will Survive

Students walk past the entrance to Spelman College in Atlanta, February 12, 2009. (TAMI CHAPPELL/REUTERS)
Students walk past the entrance to Spelman College in Atlanta, February 12, 2009. (TAMI CHAPPELL/REUTERS)

August 18 brought us yet another article claiming that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are doomed and will all be gone soon, save a few. This time the author is Alexander Nazaryan and the media outlet is Newsweek.

Nazaryan’s article is in part a review of a new book by Ron Stodghill titled Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture. Stodghill’s book is a collection of anecdotes based on interviews with various people associated in some way with HBCUs—it is not research-based and does not draw upon or build upon any research related to HBCUs. It is interesting and provocative and provides quite a bit of fodder for critics of HBCUs, which it seems was not Stodghill’s intention given that he claims that HBCUs’ demise will take “a vital part of our shared history with [it].”

Stodghill argues that HBCUs are “at a crossroads” and suggests that in 2015, “HBCUs face the first true existential crisis in their collective history.” This statement, of course, is far from the truth; HBCUs have been under attack since the days that they first enrolled students—when merely educating African-Americans was considered radical and racists did anything and everything to shut down HBCUs. Stodghill and Nazaryan also failed to remember the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. With the landmark legal case, which most think only had an impact on the K-12 system, came great skepticism about the future of HBCUs; some philanthropists, including John D. Rockefeller Jr., even talked of pulling their support of HBCUs until black college presidents explained that desegregation was much different than integration. The presidents also argued that the demand for higher education in the U.S. made the continued existence of black colleges necessary to serve all students. Stodghill and Nazaryan also forgot about Daniel Thompson’s 1973 classic book on HBCUs, Private Black Colleges at the Crossroads, and the countless newspaper articles claiming that HBCUs will die out and are in crisis.

HBCUs have found themselves at “the crossroads” time and time again and have survived and even thrived on the miniscule monetary resources that they receive from states and the federal government.

The numbers in Nazaryan’s article show a grim picture for HBCUs, but they are inaccurate.  Many HBCUs have disproportionate student outcomes despite serving great numbers of low-income and first generation students as well as students of color. Yes, HBCUs have lower graduation rates overall – hovering on average at 37% whereas the national average is 56 percent over six years and 39 percent for African-Americans overall (note that Nazaryan uses four year graduation rates, which are never used to discuss degree attainment). If Nazaryan had talked with experts who conduct research related to HBCUs, he would have known that graduation rates do not tell the entire HBCU story as they only measure the success of first-time, full-time students.

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