Colleges We Can't Afford to Lose

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The age-old debate over the role and relevance of historically black institutions is again taking center stage, fueled, in part, by those who seem not to understand that a main object of the civil rights movement was to enhance educational opportunities for African Americans by eliminating the vestiges of segregation and enhancing their educational institutions -- the HBIs.

Apparently, one such person is U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom, who suggested in a recent Wall Street Journal column that the object of the civil rights movement was to eliminate historically black colleges and universities and move the most talented black students into white institutions rather than providing both black and white students equal opportunities to a quality education at either an HBI or a traditionally white campus. Such mistaken interpretations of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the landmark 1992 Fordice Supreme Court case do a great injustice to historically black institutions and the students they serve. Most unfortunately, they threaten to open old wounds related to race and poverty.

Maryland's four historically black institutions account for 64 percent of African American undergraduates enrolled in the state's traditionally public four-year institutions. That enrollment includes many high-achieving high school graduates, as well as significant numbers of students not eligible for admission to more selective institutions. The best-prepared students enrolled at the HBIs graduate at the same rates or better than similar students at other public institutions. Other students may take longer or even discontinue their studies because of unmet financial need.

Recent data show that Maryland's historically black institutions have been productive beyond their enrollment percentages, accounting for the lion's share of degrees awarded to African Americans by traditional public four-year colleges in 2006, even in the critical fields of the sciences, engineering, education and health. Yet, efforts to enhance Maryland's black institutions have been slow and exceedingly limited. All of the HBI campuses have serious capital needs for renovation or replacement of existing buildings as well as for new facilities and equipment. This hinders our efforts to compete and attract new students, widening the historical gap between HBIs and their public white peer institutions.

Perhaps the key to resolving the question of the value of our four historically black institutions lies in recent reports indicating that African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities now constitute a majority in Maryland's public schools. These young people represent the future workforce, but they also have the greatest deficits in high school achievement and post-secondary degree production. Addressing that condition must be the highest priority of the state, and, because of their effectiveness, the historically black institutions can be invaluable assets in meeting this challenge.

As presidents of Maryland's historically black institutions, we believe it to be counter to the state's best interests to consider proposals that would limit access to higher education for minorities and low-income students. Doing so would reduce the number of such students who earn baccalaureate and graduate degrees at a time when the "new economy" demands a larger and better-educated workforce.

We suggest, instead, that the state accelerate efforts to fulfill its commitment to the federal Office of Civil Rights to "ensure that the HBIs are comparable and competitive with the state's traditionally white institutions in all facets of their operations and programs." Only then can historically black institutions realize their real potential for providing access to students from a broad segment of the population at affordable rates.

-- Reginald S. Avery


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