His­tor­i­cally black col­leges

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Shirley Car­swell Twit­ter: @shirl­ey­car­swell

When Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos cast his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties (HBCUs) as “pi­o­neers” in “school choice” this past week, her crit­ics scoffed at the no­tion that black stu­dents could choose to ma­tric­u­late wher­ever they wished dur­ing the days of se­gre­ga­tion. In a se­ries of tweets, DeVos at­tempted to ad­just her state­ment, fo­cus­ing in­stead on the schools’ birth from ne­ces­sity. But the episode re­vealed just how many mis­con­cep­tions per­sist about the na­tion’s more than 100 HBCUs. MYTH NO. 1 Black col­leges were founded by black peo­ple.

Ac­cord­ing to DeVos, HBCU founders “saw that the sys­tem wasn’t work­ing, that there was an ab­sence of op­por­tu­nity, so they took it upon them­selves to pro­vide the so­lu­tion.” Pre­sum­ably, “they” means African Amer­i­cans.

But some of to­day’s most well-known HBCUs were founded by white Amer­i­cans. Wash­ing­ton’s Howard Univer­sity, which cel­e­brates its sesqui­cen­ten­nial this year, is named af­ter one of its founders, Gen. Oliver O. Howard, a white Union of­fi­cer who led the fed­eral Freed­men’s Bureau af­ter the Civil War. Spel­man Col­lege was founded in 1881 as the At­lanta Bap­tist Fe­male Sem­i­nary by Sophia B. Packard and Har­riet E. Giles, two white teach­ers from Mas­sachusetts. Later re­named, the all-fe­male col­lege had among its early bene­fac­tors John D. Rock­e­feller and the fam­ily of his wife, Laura Spel­man Rock­e­feller. The Rock­e­fellers and the Bap­tist or­ga­ni­za­tion that un­der­wrote the teach­ers’ mis­sion also pro­vided ma­jor fi­nan­cial sup­port to the nearby all-male HBCU, More­house Col­lege.

MYTH NO. 2 It’s racist to have black col­leges.

In a 2012 story about pub­lic HBCUs in Mary­land, World Net Daily’s Les Kin­solv­ing asked, “Why is any Mary­land col­lege iden­ti­fy­ing it­self as ‘his­tor­i­cally black’ not an ex­am­ple of racism?” Last year, African Amer­i­can talk show host Wendy Wil­liams even­tu­ally apol­o­gized af­ter say­ing, “I would be re­ally of­fended if there was a school that was known as a his­tor­i­cally white col­lege.” In 2008, Ge­or­gia state Sen. Seth Harp pro­posed merg­ing two his­tor­i­cally black col­leges with two mostly white state schools, pur­port­edly in the name of clos­ing “the chap­ter of seg­re­gated schools.” (In 2015, one merger was ap­proved.)

But th­ese sen­ti­ments ob­scure a key dis­tinc­tion. As More­house grad­u­ate Martin Luther King Jr. put it in 1957, “Although Ne­gro col­leges are by and large seg­re­gated in­sti­tu­tions, they are not seg­re­gat­ing in­sti­tu­tions.” There’s a rea­son “HBCU” stands for “his­tor­i­cally black” and not sim­ply “black” col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. Although they were orig­i­nally founded to ed­u­cate black stu­dents who were shut out of white schools, they have al­ways en­rolled non-black stu­dents. Ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, “In 2014, nonBlack stu­dents made up 21 per­cent of en­roll­ment at HBCUs, com­pared with 15 per­cent in 1976.” White stu­dents ac­count for most of the non-black HBCU stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, but schools such as Howard in­creas­ingly at­tract in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est. More than two dozen stu­dents from Nepal joined Howard’s fresh­man class in 2014, the largest del­e­ga­tion from any coun­try that year.

MYTH NO. 3 HBCUs are in­fe­rior.

No HBCU is on U.S. News & World Re­port’s list of top 100 na­tional uni­ver­si­ties, and only one, Spel­man, is ranked among its 100 best lib­eral arts col­leges. HBCUs also have a rel­a­tively low grad­u­a­tion rate (30 per­cent) com­pared with all black col­lege stu­dents na­tion­wide (42 per­cent), ac­cord­ing to a 2015 New Amer­ica re­port.

But nearly 73 per­cent of HBCU stu­dents qual­ify for Pell grants and in many cases come from low-in­come house­holds where the cost of col­lege is a high bar­rier to com­ple­tion. HBCUs see their mis­sion as serv­ing th­ese stu­dents, many of them first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents who oth­er­wise might not at­tend. And th­ese schools, which rep­re­sent only 3 per­cent of post-sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions, pro­duce about 20 per­cent of all African Amer­i­can grad­u­ates — and 25 per­cent of those in the STEM fields, ac­cord­ing to the United Ne­gro Col­lege Fund.

A 2015 Gallup re­port mea­sured five el­e­ments of well-be­ing — so­cial, pur­pose, fi­nan­cial, com­mu­nity and phys­i­cal — and found that black HBCU grads were “thriv­ing,” to a greater de­gree, in all cat­e­gories, than their black coun­ter­parts who at­tended other in­sti­tu­tions. The gap was largest in fi­nan­cial well-be­ing. Black HBCU grads were also more likely to tell Gallup that they strongly agreed that their col­leges pre­pared them for life af­ter grad­u­a­tion (55 per­cent) than were black grad­u­ates of other in­sti­tu­tions (29 per­cent).

A 2013 Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion re­port said that “of the top 50 bac­calau­re­ate-ori­gin in­sti­tu­tions” of black science and en­gi­neer­ing PhD re­cip­i­ents, “21 are HBCUs.” In 2015, the New York Times looked at Xavier Univer­sity of Louisiana, which “has some 3,000 stu­dents and con­sis­tently pro­duces more black stu­dents who ap­ply to and then grad­u­ate from med­i­cal school than any other in­sti­tu­tion in the coun­try.”

MYTH NO. 4 Stu­dents are flee­ing HBCUs.

In a 2015 fea­ture, Newsweek’s Alexan­der Nazaryan wrote that “col­leges with­out stu­dents do as well as air­lines with­out pas­sen­gers, and as black stu­dents snub HBCUs, HBCUs face the first true ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis in their col­lec­tive his­tory.” That same year, Forbes ran an ar­ti­cle enu­mer­at­ing en­roll­ment de­clines at sev­eral HBCUs and con­clud­ing that African Amer­i­can stu­dents were “vot­ing with their feet to go to schools they think fit their needs bet­ter.”

In­deed, some HBCUs have seen de­clin­ing en­roll­ment. But writ­ing for The Wash­ing­ton Post last year, Dil­lard Univer­sity Pres­i­dent Walter Kim­brough pointed to an uptick in en­roll­ment at a num­ber of HBCUs, which he called the “Mis­souri Ef­fect” — so­cial con­scious­ness em­blem­atic of re­newed cam­pus ac­tivism in the past few years. “Fresh­man en­roll­ment is up 49 per­cent at Shaw Univer­sity, 39 per­cent at South Carolina State, 32 per­cent at Tuskegee Univer­sity, 30 per­cent at Vir­ginia State Univer­sity, 22 per­cent at Dil­lard Univer­sity, 22 per­cent at Cen­tral State Univer­sity, 20 per­cent at Flor­ida Memo­rial Univer­sity, and 19 per­cent at Delaware State Univer­sity. Dil­lard, Phi­lan­der Smith Col­lege (over­all en­roll­ment up 29 per­cent) and South Carolina State Univer­sity all rely on over­flow hous­ing to ac­com­mo­date the in­flux of stu­dents,” he wrote.

“Ev­ery­thing hap­pen­ing with po­lice bru­tal­ity and Black Lives Mat­ter,” stu­dent Alver­sia Wade told “PBS NewsHour,” “pushed me to want an en­vi­ron­ment where I could talk to other stu­dents about all th­ese things.”

MYTH NO. 5 Obama was anti-HBCU.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s first bud­get called for a $73 mil­lion cut in fund­ing for HBCUs. (The next year, that money was re­stored.) In 2011, the ad­min­is­tra­tion tight­ened loan stan­dards, re­sult­ing in a 36 per­cent re­duc­tion in fed­eral PLUS loans avail­able to HBCU par­ents and caus­ing a num­ber of stu­dents to un­ex­pect­edly in­ter­rupt their col­lege ed­u­ca­tions. The new rules dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected schools that served a high share of dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents. A Post anal­y­sis found that the move trans­lated to an an­nual cut of more than $150 mil­lion for HBCUs.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­knowl­edged the un­in­tended im­pact and took steps to ad­just the loan rules. But black ob­servers were shocked. As econ­o­mist Ju­lianne Malveaux, former pres­i­dent of his­tor­i­cally black Ben­nett Col­lege, put it last year, “You never thought that when a con­ser­va­tive white man put more money in for HBCUs that a pro­gres­sive black man would take it out.” In a Post op-ed in 2016, Johnny C. Tay­lor Jr., pres­i­dent of the Thur­good Mar­shall Col­lege Fund, asked, “Do black col­leges mat­ter to Obama?”

But More­house Pres­i­dent John Sil­vanus Wil­son Jr., a former di­rec­tor of Obama’s ini­tia­tive on HBCUs, told In­side Higher Ed last year: “It is a fact that just be­fore Pres­i­dent Obama took of­fice, to­tal an­nual fed­eral fund­ing to HBCUs was un­der $4 bil­lion. Dur­ing his first term, that fig­ure climbed to nearly $5.2 bil­lion, largely based on a very in­ten­tional boost in fed­eral grants and loans to HBCU stu­dents. To this day, HBCUs are get­ting nearly $1 bil­lion more per year than they were get­ting when Obama took of­fice. That is not the be­hav­ior of a leader who thinks th­ese in­sti­tu­tions do not mat­ter.” Shirley Car­swell is a lec­turer at the Howard Univer­sity School of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and a former deputy man­ag­ing editor of The Wash­ing­ton Post.


Like many his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, Howard Univer­sity had white founders. Its name­sake is Gen. Oliver O. Howard, a white Army of­fi­cer who led the fed­eral Freed­men’s Bureau af­ter the Civil War.

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