Does Attending An HBCU Hurt Future Earnings Potential?

February 23, 2011  |  

By Brittany Hutson

Are HBCUs still relevant? It’s the recurring question that has been seen in many op-ed pieces as of late, but in lieu of this question comes another—are students who choose to attend a historically black college over an elite college hurting their future earnings potential?

The New York Times recently addressed this question on their Economix blog in “The Declining Payoff From Black Colleges,” in which they cite a 2007 study conducted by Roland G. Fryer Jr., a professor of economics at Harvard University, and Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who conclude that it is in fact true that students who graduate from an HBCU will suffer a “wage penalty.”

In the study, the professors compare the earnings potential of HBCU graduates in the 1970s to the 1990s, stating that HBCU matriculation was associated with higher wages and an increased probability of graduation, as opposed to a traditionally white institution, back in the 1970s. But by the 1990s, HBCU graduates suffered from a 20% decline in wages.

The professors used many variables during their research, including family income, parents’ education, test scores, high school grades, college majors, post-secondary education, and location in the southern region of the U.S.

What is the cause of this wage decline? According to Fryer and Greenstone, it is due to the possibility that in recent years, HBCUs have not done a superb job of educating their students and preparing them for post-college life, as have traditionally white institutions.

“There is stronger evidence that the later HBCU matriculates were less satisfied with their choice of college and reported developing fewer leadership and social skills that are valuable in post-college life,” wrote Fryer and Greenstone.

Tuanni Price, a senior accounts payable manager for Demand Media, disputes that idea that HBCUs hurt future earnings potential. “Both my husband and I graduated from Grambling State University and earn in the top tier of our respective fields,” she said. “We both earn over $80K annually. What is more important is acquiring marketable job skills, experience, confidence, contacts and asking for what you are worth.”

The New York Times suggest that the wage decline could be attributed to the career fields that HBCU graduates choose to venture into, which they cite as generally being in the nonprofit and public sectors. Fryer and Greenstone concur, stating that “on the positive side, HBCU attendees became relatively more likely to be engaged in social, political, and philanthropic activities.”

HBCUs bestow as many as 40% of degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM], educate half the country’s black teachers and 40% of blacks in health professions, all of which are mid to high level income occupations, but interestingly, neither the Times nor the study reflect on this.

Though Sheryl Jones, a life coach and graduate of Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., admits that she believes her earning potential was hurt because her school did not have up-to-date equipment, she believes that her professors were “superior.”

“I think overall I have done well in life because of my education at a HBCU,” she said. “I think some students may not do as well because there’s a lack of funding and endowments at HBCUs than at traditionally white institutions”

“I have sorority sisters who are doctors, college professors, lawyers and one started a video game company using HBCU athletes,” added Jones. “I really think this is just another negative story about HBCUs.”

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