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President Obama declared this week  National Black College and University week (HBCU week from September 12-18).  He indicated the reason for this declaration is to honor the past in recognizing those that took extraordinary risks to create HBCUs and to move these organizations into the future by making HBCUs accessible and by improving graduation rates to meet his 2020 goal of making this country a global leader with the highest percentage of college graduates.

Obama recognizes that these institutions are up against enormous challenges, particularly during these trying economic times.  In February he signed an executive order that allows governmental collaboration among the educational, philanthropic and private sectors to increase a school’s ability to “to offer a college degree to as many students as possible.”

His initiatives include $850 million over 10 years for HBCUs and legislation that eliminated billions of dollars in subsidies to banks and financial institutions, “making it possible for millions of more students to attend colleges and universities and community colleges all across the country.”  Unfortunately, college enrollment does not always result in college graduations.  According to Dr. Robert Franklin, President of Morehouse College, “The national graduation rate for African-American men is lower than any other segment of the population.”

Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, will present her research about HBCUs at the White House Initiative’s national conference in Washington, D.C. this week.  “When the graduation rates are higher, they’re due to black women. And a lot of people are trying to answer this question because if you look at the graduation rates for African-American men, they tend to be about the same at black colleges and historically white institutions,” she said.  “What our research recommended is that HBCUs take a closer look at the black men on their campus and try to create initiatives.”

In attempting to reach more students, select HSBC’s have opted to offer online courses and distance learning that would provide graduates with an HBCU certificate or degree.  The program, HBCUsOnline is an educational initiative/company in collaboration with celebrity Tom Joyner.  This collaboration is promoting the benefits of having access to the social environment of an HBCU, getting a certificate or accredited degree from a recognized HBCU, and of graduating into the ranks of famous HBCU alumni like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tom Joyner, Ann Bradley, Spike Lee and others.  HBCUsOnline is set to begin classes in January 2011.  Joyner first announced the online program for students who want to study at HBCUs during a speech at Fayetteville State University in February, around the time of Obama’s executive order.

HBCUsOnline appears to be tapping into a market dominated by for-profit education companies and career colleges by offering them a better value.  It has been reported that more than 200,000 black students are pursuing online degrees with the University of Phoenix alone, which has high tuition and a low reputation.   Any HBCU offering online education is likely to have a positive effect on the community, as they are already primed for online education.  Hopefully, the HBCU programs will be more affordable than the for-profit schools.  The saving grace of the program would be if HBCU students are not forced to dropout due to financial considerations.

It is noted that the HBCU collaboration with Joyner is not being adopted by all HBCUs, but given the financial support Obama is extending to HBCUs, we are likely to see more historically black colleges offering online programs and degrees.  Hopefully, distance learning won’t detract students from taking advantage of the on-campus experience but nevertheless an alternative to the low-reputation schools of many online programs is a healthy initiative.

Candi Sparks is the author of the “Can I Have Some Money?” books series.

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