Changing HBCUs to Keep Them Relevant

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January 28, 2013 ‐ By
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Colleges and universities are standalone institutions. When you graduate, your diploma says you went to one particular school. But colleges also tend to fall into categories that group them into a special place in higher education. For example, the party schools. The liberal arts schools. The Ivy League. The colleges with great sports programs.

And the HBCUs.

Last week, we tweeted this NPR interview between John Silvanus Wilson, the new president of Morehouse, and “Tell Me More” host Michel Martin. The interview covered a wide range of topics — from the financial struggles that HBCUs face to the low level of alumni giving to the need for operational improvement at black colleges where the financial aid office gets the most criticism from alums.

But the big question is this: Do we still need HBCUs?

A former executive director for an Obama initiative on historically black colleges and universities, Wilson said this about the continued need for these institutions: “They continue to serve a special function. We have a better time graduating students. It is a more nurturing environment, in some cases.”

But, he said, “It is because, as many people are recognizing across higher education, black and white, the value proposition and the financial model, particularly for liberal arts institutions – they are under a lot of stress.”

HBCUs at one point provided an opportunity for African Americans to go to college when other schools wouldn’t allow it. Now that the options are broad, students still choose the HBCUs for the unique experience they offer.

But, according to Wilson, HBCUs haven’t done, what women’s colleges have done. Women’s colleges, at one point,offered opportunity to a group that wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance at a college education. But today women’s colleges are thriving where HBCUs struggle.

“So you see Wellesley and Smith and Mount Holyoke doing major capital campaigns, just like … the more sophisticated institutions in higher education,” said Wilson. “You have to remain sophisticated, and you have to remain up-to-date with the current definition of institutional strength in higher education. That has not happened to the same degree with HBCUs, and I would say that with the all-male institutions we lag in that respect as well.”

According to one reader, Tiarra Currie, who talked with us on Twitter about this topic, she chose Syracuse and Columbia’s Teacher’s College, in part, because what she heard from HBCU alumni convinced her it wasn’t the right environment for her.

“When I hear tales from HBCU students, the most common commentary is unorganized, lack of financial aid, and homecoming,” she told us in an email.

As a women’s college grad, my personal experience was one that was, to use Wilson’s word, current. The roles and needs of women have evolved, both individually and in society. Women’s colleges, in my experience, have tried and — in many ways — succeeded in keeping up with that.

If you went to an HBCU, I’d be curious to hear if you think black colleges have done a good job of keeping up with their evolving student body.

But by no means, does that imply that women’s colleges, or any college, for that matter, has it figured out completely. The New York Times reported just a few days ago that colleges and higher education associations are making it a “priority” to better meet the needs of a student population that’s a little older and more interested in part-time coursework, online classes, and other untraditional options. By taking these steps, they hope that graduation rates will rise.

Moreover, the job market is making a college education seem extraneous. New Labor Department research shows that nearly half — 48 percent — of people with a four-year degree are doing a job that doesn’t require one. However, The Christian Science Monitor points out that people who have a college degree make more money.

“At the same time, the story of economic progress is one of continuous development of new tools and the skills to use them – and good jobs will flow to nations that can keep pushing further down this path,” writes the article.

So the issue isn’t whether we need higher education. It’s whether that education is meeting modern needs. Which has less to do with HBCUs or women’s colleges or party schools. It’s a transformation that all schools of every stripe have to make to meet the challenges of the modern world.

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  • Tiffaney Graham

    HBCUs are still essential for African-American students. I attended Spelman College and I am positive that I would not be the same if I had not of attended this institution. What makes HBCUs so great is the deep tradition that most of them still hold to today. HBCUs break the stigma that “all Black people are alike.” It allows you to get to not only know yourself as you’re becoming an independent adult but as a person of color too. However, I do believe that HBCUs do need to open up their curriculum to subjects besides the traditional “liberal arts” program. Also, there needs to be more creative ways to spark and grow annual giving from all sources.

    • Jamie G.

      I think the giving should start with the Alumni. They do need to look at other sources as well. But again it should start with encouraging and changing the mindset of the alumni to give money