Improving the Image of HBCU’s (An Urgent Need)

From: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wednesday June 30, 2010

June 27, 2010
Black Colleges See a Need to Improve Their Image
By Eric Kelderman
Durham, N.C.

The nation’s historically black colleges are being challenged from within to overhaul their operations and image as they face outside pressures for more accountability.

Once the only higher-education option for black students, historically black colleges now enroll just 12 percent of black students, although they award 30 percent of the baccalaureate degrees earned by all black students. While a handful of the 105 colleges maintain a strong national reputation, many have long struggled with limited finances and questions about how well they are managed and the quality of their education.

The urgent calls for change were made at a two-day symposium capping the centennial celebration of North Carolina Central University, the nation’s first public liberal-arts institution for black students. College presidents, faculty members, and experts in the education of minority students said at the June event that historically black colleges must improve fund-raising strategies and student services, diversify their curricula, and adapt technologically. The goal, say leaders of black colleges, is a major transformation in how the American public, and especially high-performing potential students, view the institutions. The survival of the minority-serving institutions depends on their ability to change, said several speakers.

Roderick J. McDavis, president of Ohio University, said his institution and other traditionally white institutions are in competition for the best minority students, who once would have automatically enrolled at black colleges. Yet if most historically black colleges are going to survive, they need to reclaim their role as the best place for black students to succeed, said Mr. McDavis and others.

“I came today to challenge you to take your rightful place back,” he said at the end of a speech that sparked a standing ovation. “Other institutions are trying to take your students.”

The federal government, too, has put pressure on historically black institutions to improve. White House officials have touted the promise of historically black colleges and successfully pressed for billions more in federal dollars for them and other minority-serving institutions. Administration officials also expect the institutions to improve graduation rates to help fulfill President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

The colleges are feeling pressure as well from cash-strapped states, with lawmakers in Georgia and Mississippi suggesting that some historically black colleges be merged to save money.

Bricks Without Straw

The factors forcing change on historically black colleges have reached a tipping point over the past two years, as the economic downturn has led institutions of all kinds to re-examine their missions and consider how they will survive in a changing higher-education landscape.

The effects of the nation’s fiscal woes have fallen largely on colleges, including historically black colleges, that primarily serve the fast-growing number of low-income, first-generation students who generally require more support and financial aid from the institutions to succeed academically.

Leaders of black colleges fear that the nation’s changing demographics and economic situation will exacerbate the historical disadvantages of their institutions, which were mostly founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to lift the population of newly freed slaves from illiteracy and poverty.

Historically black colleges were “created and sustained on faith” instead of generous amounts of seed money, said Haywood L. Strickland, president of Wiley College, in Marshall, Tex. “We still live on that bricks-without-straw concept,” he said, referring to the Bible story of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt who were forced to make bricks with mud only.

Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania who studies historically black colleges, said federal programs meant to erase the effects of historical inequities in resources—such as Title III grants that can be used for endowments or faculty development, and the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, established in 1981—have been well-meaning but insufficient. The average grant for Title III, for example, is $2-million, she said, which is too little to bring the colleges to parity with other institutions.

Most historically black colleges have not been able to improve their finances by winning federal research grants, Ms. Gasman said, in part, because they lack staff and faculty members with expertise in seeking those awards. And, similar to traditionally white institutions, the research grants that are awarded go to a select few. The top 10 historically black colleges receive nearly 53 percent of the federal research money that is given to any historically black college, according to a 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service.

While speakers at the symposium called for more help from the federal government, including aid in applying for research grants, they acknowledged that colleges had to do a better job of helping themselves. For instance, they must solicit support from board members and alumni, who have a poor record of donating to their institutions’ endowments, speakers said.

In North Carolina, for example, the average endowment per full-time student in 2006 was $2,183 at the state’s 11 historically black colleges and more than $17,500 at other institutions, according to North Carolina Central University.

The disparities in endowment values have often been blamed on higher rates of poverty among black people generally, but board members must also do their share to support the colleges with donations, Mr. Strickland said. “Board members pray a lot,” he said, “but they don’t give money.”

More colleges also should begin asking students to think about giving back to the institution when they set foot on campus as freshmen, Ms. Gasman said. In her interviews of 400 alumni of black colleges for a research project, Ms. Gasman found that the two most common reasons former students did not donate were that the college had not asked and because the students had had a bad experience with some administrative office at the institution.

Adapting to Students’ Needs

Dianne Boardley Suber, president of St. Augustine’s College, in Raleigh, N.C., expressed her frustration that complaints about student services were so persistent. “Why is it we’re continuously talking about being nice to people in the registrar’s office? That’s a no-brainer,” she said. “There is no excuse for mistreating students.”

Beyond the basics of student services, historically black colleges need to update their curricula and classroom experiences to remain relevant to students and employers, Mr. McDavis said.

“If the paper we’re using to teach students has turned yellow, it may be time for a change,” he quipped.

Mr. McDavis urged black colleges’ leaders to create more opportunities for international study and internships, increase the number of chances for undergraduates to do research, and form more partnerships for academic programs with other historically black colleges.

Many black colleges also remain technologically challenged, with only a small number offering online courses and many using paper filing systems for administrative tasks.

Jarrett Carter Sr., executive director of the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy Inc., said many black colleges defer upgrading their Internet service, for example, because of the cost, feeling that other construction or program expenses are more important.

Mr. McDavis said historically black colleges need to make better use of technology to provide better instruction to the students they already enroll and to simply remain competitive. Today’s students, who have grown up without institutionalized segregation, expect the same experience at a historically black college as they do at other institutions, he said. “Civil rights have come, and students know they have choices,” he said.

A New Image?

Most troubling to many officials at the June symposium was the fact that many of the best black students are opting not to attend historically black colleges.

When segregation was legal, black colleges enrolled practically all black students. But more than 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to desegregate schools and colleges, nearly 90 percent of black students are not enrolled at historically black colleges, according to a paper John S. Wilson Jr., executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, presented to symposium attendees. That figure could mean that the colleges are no longer valued within the black community, he wrote.

And those black students who do attend black colleges are more likely than their peers who enroll elsewhere to be financially and academically challenged, said Willie J. Gilchrist, chancellor of Elizabeth City State University, in North Carolina. Even educators in historically black colleges don’t necessarily send their children to black colleges, he added.

“How much do we really believe in the HBCU experience?” Mr. Gilchrist asked the symposium attendees. “How many of us send our children somewhere else but expect someone else to send their best to us?”

The major challenge going forward, say many historically black college leaders, is not just to attract more minority students to historically black colleges, but also to get better-performing students to enroll at the institutions. And that means changing the image and quality of historically black colleges.

For Mr. Wilson, one solution is to change the message and mission of historically black colleges from a focus solely on accepting the least-prepared students to a focus on graduating students who are well prepared for the work force.

“We do want to stop saying that we enroll the kids that nobody wants,” Mr. Wilson said. “It’s not about who they are when we enroll them—it’s about who they are when we graduate them.”

Access and Success

Mr. Wilson and other representatives of the Obama administration are stressing that black colleges need to fulfill that new role with measures to ensure that more of their students complete their degrees.

In 2006, the six-year graduation rate for black students at historically black colleges was a little less than 38 percent, compared with 45 percent for black students at other colleges. And other institutions are starting to eclipse black colleges in raw numbers of graduates. The University of Phoenix has conferred the largest numbers of bachelor’s degrees on black students in both the 2007-8 and 2008-9academic years, according to an annual survey by the publication Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

Some leaders of black colleges bristle at those comparisons, saying the six-year graduation rates are an unfair measure of their success, in part because many of their students attend sporadically, taking longer to get a degree, and the colleges have fewer resources and less financial aid to offer than other colleges.

But there is also a recognition that the institutions must succeed at graduating students in order to survive.

Sandra White, director of the Center for Science, Math, and Technology Education, at North Carolina Central University, said her institution has largely been open-access, “but what we see all too often are borderline students.”

“We need to provide access and ensure success,” she said.

Several historically black colleges across the country are experimenting with creative new ways to keep students in college to finish their degrees.

At Philander Smith College, in Little Rock, Ark., President Walter M. Kimbrough has taken a personal approach to engaging students, exchanging messages with them via e-mail, Facebook, texting, and tweeting. He has also overhauled the admissions process and increased the amount spent on merit scholarships to attract and retain better students.

In 2007, Charlie Nelms, chancellor of North Carolina Central University, created a University College on the campus to cater to the needs of freshmen and transfer students. The program provides intensive advising and requires students to sign a contract that specifies their responsibilities, including community service.

Mr. Nelms, who was host at the symposium, urged other leaders to be bold at their institutions.

“If we’re going to be around as a group of institutions 25 years from now, we have to change our narrative and our approach and be strategic,” he said.

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