By Johnny C. Taylor Jr.
Every year, the president presents his version of what was accomplished the prior year and a vision for the country in the coming year. As is customary, White House staff invites a small group of select Americans to join the first lady as her husband addresses Congress. NPR described the significance of the guest list in its coverage of last year’s speech: “Just like the issues and themes that color the annual State of the Union speech, the list of White House invitees is intended to send a message about what an administration cares about and prioritizes.” As I listened to President Obama’s final State of the Union (SOTU) Address Tuesday night, I could not help but be saddened by the possibility that this administration may not care about or prioritize black colleges – that black colleges may not matter.
In the last seven years of SOTU addresses, there has not been one student from an historically black
college or university (HBCU) invited to be a guest in the first lady’s viewing box. The students who were lucky enough to be chosen have represented STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] high schools, community/technical colleges, and majority, non-HBCU four-year universities.
No guest whose college is mentioned in biographies listed on www.whitehouse.gov attended an HBCU. And not one of the first lady’s African American guests has been noted as an HBCU graduate. And just to satisfy the “fact-checkers” who will undoubtedly work hard to challenge this piece, let me acknowledge that 2014 SOTU guest Tyrone Davis worked as an environmental fellow with the Environmental Defense Fund at Elizabeth City State University (an HBCU), but he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from North Carolina State University and was attending law school at Elon University when a guest of the first lady.
To be clear, I am not attempting to denigrate any past individual SOTU guests; they are all fine representatives of our country and principles. The issue is whether our president recognizes the contributions of black colleges and their graduates. It does not seem to matter that a large group of historically underfunded and poorly treated schools, representing just 3 percent of America’s colleges, produces a whopping 50 percent of black lawyers, 40 percent of black engineers, and the majority of black public school teachers. And with an average tuition of less than $8,000 per year, publicly supported black colleges are a key solution to reducing the cost of college for most Americans and thereby reducing the amount of student loan debt American college students and their families have to assume. With these facts, there’s no question black colleges deserve a seat in the first lady’s box.
As the president spoke to cement his legacy, there was scant reference to a constituency he courted intensely to keep his job. Headlines in 2012 across black media announced, “Obama campaign focuses on black vote, targets HBCUs,” as his campaign coordinated over 40 visits to HBCU campuses. Extensive voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts helped black voter turnout surpass white turnout for the first time in history. In short, when the president needed to reach his base, black colleges responded.
So as I reflected on the four big questions President Obama posed for the next president during his SOTU address, I thought of one for him: Do black colleges matter?
Here are links to the the SOTU guest lists for 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010. And here is the exchange between Obama and the student from Southern University and A&M College, as recorded in a White House transcript:
Q: But one of my main questions for you, sir, Mr. President — I’m going to an HBCU institute — Southern University. Most times, when I go recruit off of high schools, most of the time a lot of them say, oh, I don’t want to go to an HBCU college; I feel like if I go to an HBCU, I won’t get as many opportunities as a student at university as LSU or Tulane. So what is your take of — or advice to students like me, thousands of students like me who go to HBCUs, and us finishing the course in order to be great leaders in this society? (Applause.)THE PRESIDENT: Okay. See, you got some folks voting for you already.Well, first of all, the role of the historically black colleges and universities in producing our leadership and expanding opportunity — training doctors and teachers and lawyers and ministers who change the landscape of America — I hope most people know that story, and if not, you better learn it. Because it has been powerful and continues to be a powerful tradition.And I will tell you that if you have done well at an HBCU and graduated, and you go to an employer and are making the kind of presentation you make or a Morehouse man makes or a Spelman young lady makes, you will do just fine. I don’t think it’s true that actually people don’t take — or discount that tradition. And you will be credentialed. You’ll succeed.I do think that there’s a range of challenges that HBCUs face. Some are doing great; some are having more difficulty. And some of that’s good. Look — or some of it is the result of good things. We don’t live in a society where African Americans are restricted in what colleges they can go to. And I want them to be able to go to an LSU or a Tulane as well as a Southern, as well as a Morehouse, as well as a Howard or a Spelman. So more opportunities open up — that’s good.We have been very supportive of HBCUs over the last several years. And to their credit, the previous administration had supported them, as well. There are some HBCUs that are having trouble with graduation rates. And that is a source of concern. And what we’ve said to those HBCUs is we want to work with you, but we don’t want a situation in which young people are taking out loans, getting in debt, thinking that they’re going to get a great education and then halfway through they’re dropping out.Now, some of it is those HBCUs may be taking chances on some kids that other schools might not. And that’s a positive thing, and that has to be taken into account. But we also have to make sure that colleges — any college, HBCU or non-HBCU — take seriously the need to graduate that student and not load them up with debt.Everybody needs a college education or a secondary — an education beyond high school. If it’s a community college, if it’s a technical school, if it’s a training program, you’re going to need more training as your career goes on.But I don’t want you taking out a Pell grant or a bunch of — not a Pell grant — like a federal loan or a private loan, and you walk out with $50,000, $60,000, $100,000 worth of debt, and you didn’t get your degree. So we are working very hard with every school, all colleges and universities, not just to reduce costs, but also to increase graduation rates, give students a better sense as they come in — here’s what it’s going to take for you to finish; here’s why you got to not lollygag and not take enough credits and think going to college is about partying, because it’s actually about getting your degree. (Applause.) And we want students and parents to be better informed about that process ahead of time.