As a haphazard high school senior in the Philadelphia Public School system, I can tell you that the colleges and universities weren’t banging down my door to recruit me. Nor did I think that college was an option for me. Yet with the guidance of my father and my school counselor, who helped me to devise a great college application, I somehow made it to the hollow halls of Virginia Union University.
Because of my inability to write complete structure sentence – a problem that I admittedly still have today – and disgraceful grammar, a four-year journalism program turned into five years (I was in remedial classes in my first year to undo what had been done by my public school experience). Many summers, I took courses both at VUU and at the community college just to keep up with my fellow classmates.
Despite being on a first name basis with the University’s vice-president of Financial Affairs, who worked out agreements with me every semester on how I would cover the gap in federal financial aid funding, I still hung in there. And in 2000, my mother and father were in the stands, smiling proudly, as I walked across the stage to accept my hard-earned degree.
For my mother it was especially emotional considering that I would be the first person on her immediate side of the clan, whom would graduate college. Two years later, my mother became the second, receiving not only her bachelor’s degree but her master’s in social work in an accredited degree program through Lincoln University, another historically Black university.
A story like mines recounts a familiar theme in the fabric of a typical HBCU student. We weren’t all middle-class. We didn’t have the same educational opportunities in secondary schools and in some cases, were seen as academic throw-aways. Yet given the opportunity, many of us excelled and continued the legacy of what it means to be a HBCU graduate.
However, ever since President Obama signed into executive order the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which allocated $20.5 million for repair, renovation, construction and acquisition of HBCU educational facilities and $279 million in new loans in 2011 to HBCUs, some in the mainstream have been tripping over themselves to denounce, if not trash the importance of HBCUs.
Like Jason L. Riley, who in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) took to suggesting that HBCUs are academically inferior and would be better off if turned into community colleges or for-profit online schools such as the University of Phoenix.
And then there is Richard Vedder, an Ohio University professor, who recently wrote that HBCUs were “the embarrassment of the nation,” and said that in a country, which prides itself on equality of opportunity and has a black president, elected largely with the white vote, there really is no need for a historically black college or university to exist.
It never ceases to amaze me the gall of some of these critics, who feel the need to question the relevance of HBCUs while not examining why a student may choose a HBCU over other institutions.
While HBCUs represent only 4 percent of all 4-year institutions, these institutions have managed to produce 21 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans. Moreover, the top eight colleges producing African-Americans, who went on to get PhDs. in science and engineering over the previous decade were historically black colleges and universities.
That’s not to say that many HBCUs do not have their own struggles, particularly in the area of improving graduation rates. Last year, the Associated Press analyzed government data on the 83 federally designated four-year HBCUs and found that just 37 percent of their black students finished a degree within six years.
When compared to the graduation nationally, the average six-year graduation rate for all students is 57 percent and the graduation rate for black students is somewhere between 20 to 40 percent. It should also be noted that HBCUs also educate a hugely disproportionate share of low-income students and have managed to do so with half of the endowment of larger universities. When compared to other colleges defined by the government as “low-income serving,” HBCU graduation rates are just a few points lower.
Numbers aside, what makes HBCUs still relevant for many black students is its ability to provide an unrivaled social and cultural environment to accompany its academic experience. Despite -and in lieu of – Riley and Vedder’s assertions, we don’t live in the post-racial America. And regardless of the prestige often accompanied with many HWCUs (that is historically white colleges and universities), they often do not provide the support, both academically and culturally to its Black students.
So while you may have a degree with a lot of clout in the elitist circles, it often meant learning from a bias curriculum, which intentionally left you out, and graduating with no real sense of who you are or where you came from.
Yet all the rebuttals in the world will not halt the not-so-subtle racial undertones of these “critiques” of HBCUs – with the exception of Ralph Jones Jr., a 16 year old academic prodigy, who has chosen the historically Black Florida A&M University to fulfill his higher education aspirations. By choosing FAMU over the likes of Harvard, Yale and Cornell, Jones has declared to the likes of Riley, Vedder and the rest of the critics that an HBCU is better choice for him than anything that a HWCU has to offer.