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Why Do We Have HBCU’s?

Jason Riley is a great writer, and both he and his wife Naomi (who is writing a book on tenure) have interesting and often provocative things to say, such as in Jason’s great recent book on American immigration. Now Jason has stirred things up a bit with his Wall Street Journal piece that argues that historically black colleges and universities (hereafter, HBCU’s) are serving black students very poorly, and have become something of an expensive, ineffective anachronism. This has stirred up some anger, and Michael Sorrell, writing with Marybeth Gasman, has used this blog series to argue that Riley is misinformed, inaccurate, etc., etc. Sorrell, by the way, is president of an extremely small black college in Dallas that once achieved something very difficult to accomplish in higher education: it managed to almost lose its accreditation.

Ms. Gasman and Mr. Sorrell say the evidence shows Jason Riley is wrong. I disagree, but even before we get to the evidence, I find the idea of race-based institutions of higher education very disturbing in this day and age. It is interesting that most schools use the cry for “diversity” to justify their racially preferential policies that are designed to reduce racial homogeneity in the student body, arguing there are social if not educational benefits to having more racially mixed student bodies. Yet at the same time we are subsidizing and promoting institutions that celebrate homogeneity–arguing that black self-esteem is enhanced when students are educated in largely segregated schools with other blacks (think of the hue and cry if someone tried to establish an institution designed explicitly to serve white persons or even Asians.) In a nation where there is a black president elected largely with white votes, where blacks are found with increasing frequency as Secretary of State, in Congress, as leading entertainers and sports figures, and as CEO’s of prestigious companies like American Express, do we really need to have HBCU’s? Indeed, isn’t this short of a embarrassment to our nation that prides itself on equality of opportunity and where success historically has been largely  based on meritorious achievement and, as Martin Luther King so memorably said, on “the content of your character”?

But enough opinion. How good are the HBCU’s? One way to evaluate this is to look at rankings. I suspect the Harvard, Yale and Princeton of the HBCU’s are Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse.  In the US News & World Report rankings,  the top-ranked liberal arts college, Spelman is ranked 59th, which is pretty good but hardly one of the best. Howard, the top HBCU research university, does not crack the top 100 in that list. Not one school is considered a very fine school of the highest distinction.  In the Forbes rankings (full disclosure: I am in charge of compiling them), there are some 610 schools ranked, and not one the HBCU’s makes the top half of that list. The best of the HBCU’s are considered to be fairly decent but hardly superb institutions. Taken collectively, the 95 or so four year domestic HBCU’s have typical six year graduate rates around one-third, compared with well over 50 percent for the general population of schools.  For every student entering one of these schools full time who successfully graduates (albeit in as much as six years), two others drop out.  Lists of the lowest graduation rate schools in the country have disproportionately high representation from the HBCU’s.

Proponents of HBCU’s would say the low indicators of performance of those schools arises from the fact that students, on average, have lower incomes and poor academic backgrounds than non-HBCU schools–which is true.  Some limited empirical analysis that we have done at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity suggests that this may explain much, but not all, of the relatively poor graduation rates. Even if it explains all of the differential rates, however, it only means that HBCU’s are no better nor worse than other schools, hardly a justification for continuation of race-centered institutions.

Another issue relates to the amount of subsidies. Howard gets about $235-million from the federal government annually, or roughly $22,225 per student. Most traditional state universities are lucky to get per student subsidies of half that amount, and one-quarter is closer to typical. Would the students be better off if we gave them $22,225 vouchers to attend traditional universities ranked higher than Howard in the rankings? I suspect so.  It is time to rethink the public funding of this anachronism from the past.

I am not proposing simply abolishing these institutions. I simply would suggest that they should not receive special funding because of some race-based status, and that they should accordingly be encouraged to enroll more non-black students. Already some HBCU’s, notably two in West Virginia, are in fact no longer predominantly black. Just as all-male bastions like Harvard and Yale started accepting women quite successfully 40 years ago, so I suspect the HBCU’s would benefit from expanding their client base.

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