Are Historically Black Colleges Worth It?

By Ashley, Dwayne | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, September 2, 2007 | Go to article overview

Are Historically Black Colleges Worth It?


Ashley, Dwayne, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


SOME SCHOLARS SUGGEST THAT THE "UNIQUE EDUCATIONAL SERVICES" ONCE PROVIDED BY HBCUS TO BLACK STUDENTS HAVE NOW DISAPPEARED.

Economists Drs. Roland Fryer of Harvard University and Michael Greenstone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently undertook a dense statistical analysis, which concluded that attending historically Black colleges and universities may once have conferred a "wage advantage" for African-American graduates compared to those graduating from majority White institutions - but no longer.

But do the data actually support such a conclusion? Or the Fryer-Greenstone suggestion that the "unique educational services" once provided by HBCUs to Black students have now disappeared? Hardly.

Higher education costs money, lots of it, as any family with college-bound children can attest. But calculating the value of a college education can be a tricky business and, when measured by a single set of criteria, fundamentally misleading.

First, the Fryer-Greenstone discovery of a "wage differential" over 20 years (1970s to 1990s) is a tenuous barometer of educational value for money and not necessarily a measure of overall educational equality. How, for example, would you evaluate income differences between a school focused on the humanities and fine arts (endeavors usually associated with lower earnings) with a school that has a large business and technology program? One suspects that career goals, financial aid, likelihood of acceptance and caliber of instruction will weigh much more heavily on a student's decision to apply than a hypothetical paycheck 10 years after graduation.

In fact, as Fryer and Greenstone acknowledge, HBCUs registered significant gains between the 1970s and 1990s in several areas traditionally used to measure educational quality, including SAT scores of incoming freshmen and per capita student spending.

Second, any wage difference between graduates of HBCUs and majority institutions is statistically swamped by the everwidening gap between those who earn a college degree and those who don't. Simply put, large numbers of HBCUs consistently graduate African-American students at higher rates than do majority schools. This fact indicates that HBCUs' retention rates, while roughly 33 percent, are higher than those of majority institutions.

Would many of these HBCU students excel at majority colleges and universities? Of course. But many others without the necessary family backing, academic preparation or financial support to attend such schools would not.

Even today, a remarkable percentage of HBCU students are the first members of their family to graduate from an institution of higher learning. For such students, HBCUs are vital in meeting the education needs of minority populations too often ignored or underserved by majority public and private institutions of higher learning. …

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