Pride and Peril: Historically Black Colleges and Universities

By Nealy, Michelle J. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, August 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

Pride and Peril: Historically Black Colleges and Universities


Nealy, Michelle J., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Diverse identifies five threats facing HBCUs and five opportunities that could define their futures.

Once a beacon of hope for thousands of Black students denied access to higher education by predominantly White institutions, historically Black colleges and universities have educated generations of Black scientists, doctors, lawyers, educators and social activists. But today, these institutions face serious challenges. Questions of relevance have reached a fever pitch as today's Black colleges work to address declining enrollment, low graduation rates and financial instability. Despite the challenges, however, HBCUs for many Black students - and others - remain the last best hope of succeeding in the higher education arena. As the age-old debate for and against Black colleges rages on, Diverse has identified five threats facing HBCUs and five opportunities that could define their futures.

Threats

1 Prolonged Recession, Funding and Development Issues: When tradition il Iy White institutions catch a cold, HBCUs catch pneumonia. Such is the case with the contagious economic virus that all of higher education is exposed to. HBCUs, like many others in the higher education sector, rely on student tuition dollars, government programs, corporate donations and foundation giving to sustain their institutions. AtI of these are unreliable revenue sources that point to the need for a stable income source typically found in a sustainable endowment.

2 Getting Them and Keeping Them: HBCUs provide a supportive environment where Black students thrive, but a 2006 Ed Sector report showed that just 37.9 percent of Black students attending HBCUs earn an undergraduate degree within six years, 4 percentage points lower than the national college graduation rate for Black students and 7 points lower than the overall graduation rates of predominantely White institutions. The graduation disparity could he a lot worse given the economic and educational disadvantages that often accompany these students, the vast majority of whom qualify for federal PeIl Grants. But in a society that is becoming less tolerant of excuses, HBCUs will have to undertake some creative means of addressing the retention problem.

3 New Competition: For-profit institutions have become destination institutions for many Black and Hispanic students. A disproportionate percentage of degrees from proprietary colleges go to Black and Hispanic graduates. In this year's Diverse Top 1 00, the University of Phoenix "online campus" overtook Florida A&M and Howard universities as the No. 1 producer of bachelor's degrees awarded to African -Amen cans. While Black students earned 8.9 percent of bachelor's degrees in the United States in 2005, they accounted for 15 percent of the degrees conferred by proprietary institutions, according to data in the National Center for Education Statistics report, "Postseco ndary Institutions in the United States."

4 Conservative Ethos/Constricting Campus Culture: Many news accounts have portrayed HBCUs as conservative, traditional institutions that are led by well-intentioned disciplinarians. While the accuracy of such accounts may be dubious, they raise warning points. The value of thoughtful reviews of HBCU campus climates and environments for faculty and students cannot be underestimated. Wholesome and welcoming environments at HBCUs were the stock of legends and huge selling points in attracting students and faculty. Today, many Black institutions continue to impose conservative policies that have long since lost their appeal, such as setting curfews, meddling in student media and limiting support tor faculty research and expression.

5 Fear of Impending Doom: Black institutions on the brink of closure, such as Morris Brown, and those facing accreditation woes, such as Paul Quinn, continue to make headlines. As one account after another emerges, the fear of self-fulfilling prophecies usurps reality. But only a relatively small number of these schools have suffered irreparable damage. …

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