It’s evident: A long history of chronic underfunding, classrooms with broken air conditioners and tattered library books have handicap many of the nation’s 105 historically black colleges and universities in their quest to deliver quality education and research.
By 2020, black and Latino children are expected to comprise 50 percent of the nation’s students. Many will find their way to minority-serving institutions, an almost sure path for first-generation students seeking a sliver of the American Dream. That’s why ample funding to these institutions is necessary if we want to put America ahead in a global society where brainpower is premium.
This week, the White House will host a summit devoted to strengthening the future of HBCUs. President Obama has already recognized the importance of the schools. Tucked inside H.R. 4137, Title 3, the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act passed in 2009, is an increased budget line to HBCUs and other minority serving institutions. Meanwhile, about 90 HBCUs, including those in Maryland and the District received another round of that funding . However, this slight increase to avert a long trend of decreased funding since the Carter administration is barely enough for the gargantuan task at hand.
What many people may not realize is that HBCUs produced 25 percent of the nation’s black college graduates and most of the black doctoral degree recipients, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Moreover, enrollment at HBCUs has risen since the mid-1980s, from about 70,000 students to almost 300,000. Interestingly, Hispanic-serving institutions graduate 50 percent of Hispanic students, including Afro-Latinos. Obama’s funding is, therefore, a smart strategy to increase the number of college graduates in the nation and to be globally competitive in the race to the top, not only as leader of the free world but as leader of an educated nation.
HBCUs are doing their part in this grand quest for global dominance in higher education. In Louisiana, Xavier College has a 77 percent acceptance rate of its graduates to medical schools. This figure is almost twice the national rate of other colleges in the nation, despite racial makeup. The District’s Howard University boasts the most blacks with doctoral degrees in the country. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in his announcement on last week, acknowledged the remarkable accomplishments by these HBCUs, despite a range of obstacles.
While some HBCUs do well, others founder. Consider this: One Ivy League college’s endowment dwarfs the size of several HBCUs endowments, yet top-tiered HBCUs are often compared with the likes of Harvard and Yale. Perhaps it’s because some high-achieving students eschew Ivy League schools and majority-white institutions and seek out an HBCU education, hence a slight bump in HBCU enrollment. This increase dismisses the notion of a “post-racial society” that purports that a racially integrated society with a president who is an African American makes HBCUs irrelevant.
Unfortunately, many of these students arrive on campus only to find meager scholarships or financial aid to sustain their tenure. This was especially acute during the long economic slump that began in 2007. The deep recession and long recovery gutted many HBCUs. In some states, government slashed their higher-education budget, which was more painful for HBCUs because they get less funding.
The Obama administration’s recent funding is only a small antidote to decades of underfunding. HBCU boards, trustees, staff and faculty must lead the charge to maximize other revenue streams. One obvious stream is their pool of alumni scattered across the globe. A high alumni giving rate, as many already know, prompts more philanthropic and private donations.
But many of these alumni have stories of woe during their tenure at HBCUs. Most grievances center on financial aid and students’ interaction with faculty and staff, many of whom opt out of the nurturing environment long associated with these institutions.
For students who struggle to stay on their academic journey, a harsh campus life, poor interaction with administration and crushing student loans in the process can be intolerable. And it often begs these questions: Where is the federal funding directed to on these campuses? Why are these federal and private donations not reaching more high-achieving students who need financial support?
Concerted efforts to cultivate alumni giving while students are on campus imprint memories alumni can cling to long after college. Institutions that allow all manner and forms of hazing won’t inspire students to dig deep into their pockets after they graduate.
Former Howard University president Patrick Swygert seemingly understood that. Howard’s alumni giving went from a meager 4 percent in the late 1998 to 20 percent in 2008.
This path is the way forward. In the wake of Fisher v. University of Texas, and other rabid attacks on affirmative action and many things African American, minority-serving institutions will be the last bastion of hope for higher education, places where many disadvantaged students can be transformed into stars. Those in charge at HBCUs should remember this because ensuring future alumni success is the only way to build on black colleges’ legacy and the only way to guarantee success.
Ann-Marie Adams is a race and education contributor to The RootDC. She is the founder of a hyper-local news site, the Hartford Guardian, which builds urban communities through civic journalism. Follow her on Twitter at @annmarieadams.