No matter how many times historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) demonstrate progress and success, they continue to take a beating from ill-informed critics. The latest incident appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Once again, the author used flawed analysis in an attempt to show that HBCUs are inferior.
Since their inception, many people have labeled HBCUs inferior even though they are responsible for educating the majority of the African-American middle class as we know it. When hurling criticism at HBCUs, most naysayers point to the words of Black conservatives—such as Thomas Sowell, who has lambasted HBCUs for decades, or sociologists Christopher Jencks and Davie Riesman, whose 1967 study of HBCUs labeled them “academic disaster areas.” What these critics fail to realize is that neither Sowell nor Jencks and Riesman did empirical research on HBCUs to make their claims—instead, they relied only on anecdote and personal experience.
In addition, those scholars compared HBCUs to Ivy League universities and the most well-funded, prestigious public institutions in the country. There are few public or private institutions in the United States that stand up to those comparisons. Yet time and time again, critics of HBCUs make these false assessments. Such judgments are patently unfair and undermine any serious discussions on the true value of HBCUs.
A fair assessment of the work of HBCUs, places them side by side with historically white institutions (HWIs) with similar student populations. Specifically, we should compare them to institutions in a few of the Southern states with like percentages of Pell Grant eligible students and like SAT scores. Such an evaluation would show that in many cases HBCUs are doing a better job of educating African-American students. Moreover, they have done so with far fewer resources than their HWI counterparts.
Some HBCUs are struggling, but there are HWIs that show the same deficiencies. Making sweeping generalizations about HBCUs does an enormous disservice to these institutions, their faculty, and their graduates. Critics should look at HBCU production of Black scientists, doctors, pharmacists, teachers, and engineers. Large numbers of these professionals earned and continue to earn their undergraduate or professional degrees at HBCUs. These institutions offer a needed and necessary choice to students in our diverse system of higher education.
Like previous U.S. presidents, Barack Obama has invested a considerable amount of money in HBCUs. He is holding these institutions accountable, pushing for higher graduation rates and demanding that they build their endowments. The president realizes that HBCUs are integral to his goal of increasing higher education for all Americans. In fact, the recent White House conference on HBCUs was a refreshing conversation on these institutions—offering sessions on fundraising, retention and graduation rates, on-line education, and public-private partnerships, among other topics. The conversations were forward thinking and pushed for change and growth.
Perhaps the far more important story that should be written about these institutions, is how President Obama’s emphasis on measurable outcomes and accountability has found allies in a generation of HBCU leaders who are creating cultures of excellence and empowerment on their campuses. These leaders, combined with the Obama administration’s vision, represent the best opportunity for significant change in the HBCU marketplace in years. But, why would anyone want to talk about people with solutions when re-hashing old and inaccurate arguments is still so well received?
This blog post was written with Michael J. Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College, a Black college in Dallas, Texas.