Yet Another Case for HBCUs

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Part I: A history in the present 

“Having emancipated a whole race, shall it be said that there our duty ends, leaving the race as cumberers of the ground, to live or to wilt and perish, as the case may be? They are members of the American family and their advancement concerns us all. While swiftly forgetting all they ever knew as slaves, shall they have no opportunity to learn anything as freemen?”

–Justin Smith Morrill, Floor of US Senate, 1876


The commonly told historical narrative is that Reconstruction ended as an institutional failure. But as historian Douglas Egerton notes, Reconstruction – a moment that turned out to be one of the most progressive in American history – was violently overthrown. There were to be no easy victories. The politically violent opposition to educating Black people in this country during and after the Civil War elucidates more than its own racist moment. It colors a present marred by vast inequalities in America’s education infrastructure that have yet to be fully reckoned with.


Wilberforce, among the first HBCUs in the country, was founded in 1856.

Wilberforce, among the first HBCUs in the country, was founded in 1856.

By the time Wilberforce University had been founded in 1856, slavery was still the law in the South and yet, abject rejection of the idea of Black education was often met with opposition less than peaceful. Months after emancipation in 1865 that brought an end to the Civil War, enraged whites burned the main building to the ground.

Historian Carter G. Woodson pointed out in 1865 that the act “speedily” checked the idea that progress and “new vigor” would go untouched.

Violence continued. White opposition to black institutions at the onset of the Reconstruction era was in no way a series of isolated incidents. The damage assessment after the Memphis Riots of 1866: 12 schools burned down.

The order was to remain the same, as an 1866 editorial in The Daily Avalanchesuggested. “The chief source of all our trouble removed, we may confidently expect a restoration of the order of things … thank heaven the white race are once more rulers of Memphis.”

Riots destroyed schools in New Orleans, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee from 1865 to 1871.

Long after riots and damaging racist violence, political opposition enforced repressive rule where its more ferocious counterpart had left off. Most black colleges were excluded from the original Morrill Act of 1862 that set forth a provision for land-grant colleges.

In a debate on whether or not to amend the bill, its author, Senator Justin Smith Morrill, pointed out in 1876 that the aim ought to be a more inclusive provision because their “advancement concerns us all.” An amendment would be passed 14 years later in 1890. A majority of historically black colleges were founded during this period.

But if education was to be the marker for a more equitable democracy, the challenges faced among black citizens at the turn of the century and beyond points to a sinister flaw.

At the turn of the century, as historian and journalist Craig LaMay notes, black colleges received only about 10 percent of the federal education funding as their white counterparts. Blacks citizens were losing the race long before it began.

What is needed is a national reckoning. Current disparities in education should not be disconnected from their historical context and yet, this is the current order of things. More subtle forms of racism and classism color systemic inequalities in our contemporary moment that prove to be difficult to pinpoint and correct.

The historian Douglas Egerton, speaking extensively on the subject in an interview with The Maroon Tiger, suggests that present inequalities stem from divorcing present realities from their histories and the white privilege that resulted.

 “There is an unwillingness among white people to admit privilege – whether it be getting a cab or being able to generate middle-class wealth,” he said. “They tend to think race and class is not part of their success. It is easier to get at somebody wearing a robe and hood and holding a gun than it is to fight these more subtle forms of racism.”

Indeed, HBCUs have had to fight wars on several fronts. Harvard’s endowment in 2014 amounted to about $6 billion, or about 15 times the endowment of all the nation’s 105 black colleges combined. Just last month, as HBCU Digest’s JL Carter reported, the U.S. Department of Education appropriated $171 million dollars to “bolster access” for low-income and minority students. Black colleges received only $3 million of that funding.

Where we go from here depends on how well HBCUs and the federal government address the racial and class inequalities that make it possible for black colleges to receive disproportionate funding to achieve the same objectives as PWIs. The “HBCUs can do more with little” line of logic may be true, but it’s also an impediment to equal education for all.


Part II: Black colleges and the value question

“So yes, we have come a vast distance as a nation. And yet we still have so far to go to ensure true equality of opportunity and a diverse workforce in our society and our public schools.”

Arne Duncan, 2014 National Conference on HBCUs


Arne Duncan has served two full terms as Secretary of Education.

Arne Duncan has served two full terms as Secretary of Education.

During remarks at the 2014 National HBCU Conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described the value proposition of HBCUs.

 “I reject the idea that with the end of Jim Crow segregation, HBCUs are either no longer needed, or cannot truly be at the forefront of innovation in higher education,” he said.

Duncan cited numerous statistics to support his argument. They included:

On a per-student basis, Spelman College produces more African-American graduates who earn doctorates in the STEM fields than any college or university in America. HBCUs produce 27 percent of African-Americans with bachelors degrees in STEM fields. In 2011, HBCUs conferred one-fourth of the bachelor degrees in education awarded to African-Americans. HBCUs awarded a sixth of all bachelor degrees and professional degrees earned by African Americans in the U.S.

Duncan also described the innovative programs at HBCUs such as Hampton University’s cutting-edge Proton Therapy Institute for treating cancer, Morgan State University’s groundbreaking partnership with the Universities Space Research Association, and the various initiatives that “almost single-handedly created an African-American professional class in the face of decades of Jim Crow discrimination.”

He also made several references to the unique mission of HBCUs. Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965 defined an HBCU as any historically Black college or university established prior to 1964 “whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans.” Because of those two words “and is,” educating Black Americans must remain an institution’s principal mission in order to be considered an HBCU.

However, there are currently HBCUs that have transitioned away from this mission while still receiving federal funds designated specifically for HBCUs. For example, West Virginia State University, a public HBCU, has a white population of 1,476 and only 272 black students. According to an NPR article titled “The Whitest Historically Black College in America,” Bluefield College receives $2 million each year solely because of its HBCU status, yet 90 percent of the student body is white.

In contrast, Howard University has been able to update its mission without compromising its purpose. A statement released by the college in 2009 described its evolving mission, saying,

“In view of the changing imperatives in higher education and in the national and global climate, the mission of the University should be revisited periodically. The proposed refinement of the existing mission statement reflects: 1) a focus on students of high academic achievement and students with academic potential; 2) a complementary mix between teaching, research and service with a focus on the expectation that research must be an integral part of undergraduate, graduate, and professional education requirements; and 3) an adaptation to changing requirements and opportunities in an increasingly technological and global society.”

In an interview following his address to Morehouse students last month, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton listed six major reasons that HBCUS are still relevant and essential:

 “HBCU’s create an access point for students who would not attain higher education otherwise; in many cases HBCUs are outperforming other institutions especially in STEM fields; HBCUs have developed innovative strategies for serving students with the most need; diversity is essential to the country’s progress; the potential stored in the institutions, their students, and their faculty has yet to be measured; and lastly, the motivation that underserved groups possess to secure better outcomes is unparalleled.”


Part III: A look into the future

“That’s what the first founders of HBCUs did.  They knew that even if they succeeded, that inequality would persist for a very, very long time.  They knew that the barriers in our laws, the barriers in our hearts would not vanish overnight.  But they also recognized a larger and distinctly American truth, and that is that the right education might one day allow us to overcome barriers, to let every child fulfill their God-given potential.  They recognized, as Frederick Douglass once put it, that education means emancipation.  And they recognized that education is how America and its people might fulfill our promise.”

Barack Obama, Speech during National HBCU Week, 2013 


How do we move forward? With the economic impact of Jim Crow and neglected funding opportunities seen since the Reconstruction Era, it is clear that the current state of historically black colleges has not seen sufficient growth.

There is no surprise that during Reconstruction the struggle shifted from the battlefield to the economic sphere, causing resentment to fuel decisions that ultimately barraged the hopes and dreams of black economic prosperity. The freedom to establish a business does not come with a success-in-due-time guarantee. In fact, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s when blacks in high numbers were able to enjoy the freedoms supposedly presented to them in 1865. Inequalities yet persist.

There are many factors that contribute to HBCU improvement. Developing and interpreting a formula is the hardest part. One must first consider the most pertinent variable that influences the success of any collegiate institution: the endowment, which is the total value of its investments. What creates an increase in endowment, other than the obvious donations from alumni and other sources, is achieving a high return on investment. If a school is not able to market itself as relevant, then it will remain irrelevant to potential investors. It is similar to a movie extra in a D-class film demanding to have a reality TV show. Irrelevance reaps no reward.

The U.S. Department of Education along with the Pew Research Service found that the average endowment for four-year Predominantly White Institutions is $122 million. The average endowment for an HBCU is $14.1 million. The data does not lie.

HBCUs lack competitive endowments to fairly contend with other four-year colleges. It is clear that the head start of the white majority played a huge role in shaping the disparities (both academic and economic) that persist today.

There are three sectors that significantly influence HBCU endowment: federal state, and private.

Federal funding behind HBCUs originates from the Higher Education Act of 1965, which accounted for a small portion of most endowments for HBCUs. Today, it is estimated that approximately $2 million is allocated for every HBCU. Despite the recent economic slump, there has been much advocation for enlarging the overall HBCU endowment. As Executive Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, Morehouse President John S. Wilson has pushed for HBCU endowment expansion since 2009. He was successful in his duty, amassing more than $1 billion to be put towards HBCUs.

State funding for HBCUs is a major piece of public HBCU endowment. James T. Minor, the Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, performed an in-depth 2008 report that analyzed the process of state allocations to HBCUs. Minor concluded, “When making appropriations, state governments prioritize PWIs and flagship institutions.” This finding not only projects HBCU inferiority, but also questions HBCU relevancy in the eyes of the given state. It is imperative to demolish this shoddy disposition and to daringly resolve this perplexity that has been engendered by years of inequity.

Three of the most renowned private organizations that aid in enhancing HBCU endowment are the United Negro College Fund, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and the National Association for Equal Opportunity. These private organizations have helped thousands of black professionals obtain a college degree.

Simply put, HBCUs exist to grow extraordinarily gifted and well-equipped black professionals to make a change in the world. However, if this is the mission of every HBCU, then one must consider how many actually are needed. The unfortunate truth is that there are too many HBCUs carrying out the same duty. Therefore, when it comes to investing in them, it becomes difficult task to determine where and to whom funds go.

Some observers of this dilemma have called for a complete shutdown of HBCUs that have a low return on investment so that funds can be reapportioned to exemplary HBCUs.

With money being a limited resource, it is crucial to understand that despite academic institutions being altruistic in idea, they are first and foremost businesses. Because businesses run on investment, this process of valuation, termination/preservation, and reapportionment sounds conducive to a successful turnaround for HBCUs as a whole.

 “We know HBCUs have value and this is the ideal time to demonstrate that value,” Morehouse’s President John Wilson said.

In other words, now is the time, more than ever, for prospective students, current students, alum, and HBCU allies to vocalize just how much the world needs Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Jared Loggins, Managing Editor

James Parker, Campus News Editor

Michael Christopher Scott, Staff Writer

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