Dec 1, 2010

Dr William R. Harvey with graduates
 
 

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Jason Riley questioned the relevance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in today's society. He complained about President Obama's conventional approach to HBCUs and opined that "instead of more subsidies and toothless warnings to shape up," the President and federal government ought to "…remake these schools to meet today's challenges."

I cannot speak for the President, but I have spoken to him about HBCUs. An ardent supporter of historically black colleges and universities, President Obama understands and appreciates their value to the nation and the world. The facts justify his support, i.e., representing 4% of all American colleges and universities, HBCUs conferred over 22% of all degrees awarded to African Americans. With only 13% of African Americans in higher education, these colleges awarded nearly 30% of all undergraduate degrees earned by African American students in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines; 50% of all bachelor's degrees in teacher education received by African American students; and 85% of Doctor of Medicine degrees acquired by African Americans according to statistics compiled by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

Most HBCUs are also economic engines in their communities. According to a 2006 National Center for Educational Statistics report, the short term economic impact of HBCUs is $10 billion annually, providing more than 180,000 full and part-time jobs. The report also noted, "to put that in perspective, the rolled up employment impact of the nation's HBCUs exceeds the 177,000 jobs at the Bank of America in 2006, which was the nation's 23rd largest employer."

In attempting to make his case, Riley presented biased, antiquated suppositions such as articles written by Thomas Sowell some 36-years ago along with references by Christopher Jencks and David Riesman some 43-years ago. Riley also makes such groundless claims as "…available evidence shows that in the main, these students are better off exercising their non-HBCU options." What evidence? This certainly is not the experience that we have seen at Hampton University.

Another ridiculous assertion that Riley offers is that "For-profit entities could be brought in to manage other schools." He uses the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college, as an example stating that they confer more bachelor's degrees on black students than any other school. Does he really want HBCUs to model themselves after an institution whose latest graduation rates, as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), was 1% at 4 years, 4% at 6 years, and 6% at 8 years?

Riley's mindset, journalistic standards, and research methodology aside, as President of Hampton University, and Chairman of the President's Advisory Board on HBCUs, I want to provide a more accurate view of HBCUs and the quality work many of these institutions perform.

First and foremost, just like predominately white institutions, HBCUs are not a monolith. Some are exceptional, the majority are sufficient — all but a few are accredited institutions that meet or exceed the standards set by the accrediting bodies for any institution. An acknowledgment of some of the world-class academic and research activities at HBCUs is in order. Let me begin with my own institution—Hampton University.

 

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