This was a good season for education. NBC launched "Education Nation," its intensive, ongoing coverage of education in America. Speaking before a Texas audience, President Obama called education "the economic issue of our time," and said that he was absolutely committed to making sure that "here in America...nobody is denied a chance to make the most of their lives just because they can't afford it." Back in Washington, he convened a summit to consider the role that community colleges play in college completion. The Department of Education awarded $330 million in "Race to the Top" grants to public schools that are making their schools better.
But while most people were working to help more Americans get a good education, a few were working to tear down a community of institutions, America's historically black colleges and universities, that are getting the job done. Working in fact, to make sure that fewer, not more, Americans, and fewer African-Americans in particular, can go to college.
It started with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. "Once an essential response to racism," wrote Journal writer Jason Riley, HBCUs "are now academically inferior." Citing sources more than thirty years old, Riley said that HBCUs should be turned into community colleges, or turned over to for-profit corporations. Riley's motion was seconded by an Ohio University professor, Richard Vedder. Blogging at the Chronicle for Higher Education, Vedder called Riley "a great writer" and HBCUs an "embarrassment to our nation."
Both Riley and Vedder are as wrong as they can be. HBCUs represent only 4 percent of all 4-year institutions but produce 21 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded to African-Americans. A National Science Foundation study found that the top eight colleges producing African-Americans who went on to get Ph.Ds. in science and engineering over the previous decade were HBCUs -- ahead of Harvard, UC-Berkeley, MIT, Brown and Stanford. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from an HBCU. So, more recently, did the president of Brown University, the Surgeon General of the United States, and the president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. HBCUs have produced Rhodes scholars and host chapters of Phi Beta Kappa.
But don't take my word for it. Dr. MaryBeth Gasman, an associate professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has called the arguments of Riley and his sources "flawed" and "ill-informed." "A fair assessment of the work of HBCUs places them side by side with historically white institutions (HWIs) with similar student populations," she writes. "Such an evaluation would show that in many cases HBCUs are doing a better job of educating African-American students. Moreover, they have done so with far fewer resources than their HWI counterparts."