Even as the nation’s partisan divide has grown ever sharper, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) have always enjoyed strong support from both Republicans and Democrats. That history only adds to the irony, which comes with the recent criticism of President Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, who has come under fire in some quarters for pushing policies they say have harmed HBCUs.
HBCU advocates say a tightening of credit standards for a federal loan program led to 28,000 Black students leaving historically Black colleges. The Administration is also preparing to unveil a new college rating system that HBCU leaders say could unfairly keep their schools from getting more federal help. And after the president unveiled a new initiative to pay for community college tuition, it angered some HBCU leaders, who argue that their schools should also be eligible for similar help since they also serve many low-income students.
Through it all, the nation’s 105 historically Black colleges and universities have continued doing the yeoman’s work that forms the core of their unrivaled legacy. Together, the schools accounts for only 9 percent of Black undergraduates, yet they award nearly 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned by African Americans, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
US Black Engineer and Information Technology magazine recently spoke separately with two leading authorities on historically Black colleges, both of whom are strong supporters of HBCUs but represent opposite sides of the simmering controversy.
Dr. Michael Lomax is a former president of Dillard University who for more than a decade has been president and chief executive of the venerable United Negro College Fund, which in its history has raised more than $2.1 billion for the nation’s 37 private Black colleges and their students. The magazine also spoke with Dr. Ivory Toldson, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
The conversations follow here, beginning with Dr. Lomax:
USBE&IT: Some critics have argued that Obama Administration policies, including tighter standards for Parent Plus loans, a plan to offer free community college, and ratings that single schools out for low graduation rates and high loan default rates, are hurting historically Black colleges. What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Lomax: The Parent Plus loan changes, we have argued vehemently, were bad policy badly made. We argued from the very beginning that was going to have a disparate negative impact on historically Black colleges. The Department of Education argued that this was an appropriate change and they could mitigate the impact on historically Black colleges. As this has turned out, they have issued a study themselves which has affirmed what we suggested from the very beginning: that this was a policy that would have an adverse impact on historically Black colleges and the students that attend them. Enrollment is down significantly. The good news is that we have adjusted those credit standards. We believe they are better now, but we can’t undo the impact that they had. I think Department of Education policy that would hold schools responsible for graduation rates would also adversely impact HBCUs. When you look at HBCUs and say, “Well, only 33 percent of their students graduate in six years. That’s lower than the 51 percent of Americans who graduate in six years at all four-year institutions.” Well, yes. But at HBCUs, 75 percent of the students are low-income students. And low-income students have 10 percent graduation rates. When you look at the performance of HBCUs, they are outperforming consistently all other institutions that are educating the demographic groups that we educate. When we look at evaluating those institutions, it is very often done against a more privileged subset of institutions.
USBE&IT: Are HBCUs and the families that send their children to them relying too heavily on loans?
Dr. Lomax: Unfortunately, parents have to rely too much on loans. In the last decade, scholarships through Pell Grants have lost their buying power. A Pell Grant used to pay for 70 percent of college tuition. Today, it pays for 30 percent. Low-income families that don’t have savings, therefore, can only finance these educations through the student working and/or taking out loans. Do we want loans? No. But if the alternative is no education, then I would argue that that loan if taken out conservatively, is the best ticket to the future for a low-income, first-generation student. UNCF works night and day to raise funds. We’ll award $100 million in scholarships this year. That makes us one of the largest scholarship providers in the nation. It is an important role that we play, but we need billions of dollars of financial aid for students, not just millions. The federal government is not fulfilling its role with Pell Grants. And if you look at the scholarships that are awarded by the states, very often they are funded with the proceeds from the lottery. Tickets are disproportionately bought by low-income people of color. Those lottery-funded scholarship programs have moved to being largely merit based. And the percentage of low-income African-American students who get the benefit of the scholarships paid for by their family members who are buying lottery tickets has diminished. So we have an unfair and uneven playing field.
USBE&IT: What is the current role of HBCUs?
Dr. Lomax: I think the current role of HBCUs is the role they have played historically. If you look at who attends HBCUs, 70 percent of the students at HBCUs are low-income or Pell-eligible. That is versus 40 percent at all colleges and universities. Disproportionately, they are first-generation, low-income students. HBCUs continue to be the first rung on the ladder of post-secondary education for African-American families. We begin our educations generationally at historically Black colleges, and that has not changed.
USBE&IT: Why is it that HBCUs continue to produce a disproportionate share of the nation’s Black college graduates? What are you doing that other schools are not?
Dr. Lomax: The first thing we’re doing is that we believe in our students. We believe that Black students can go to college, should go to college, and that they should pursue four-year degrees. Unfortunately, many of the educators that our kids encounter in grades K through 12 set very low expectations for them. They don’t believe in them. They still believe they are going to be hourly wage earners; they are not “college material.” HBCUs believe if you got there, we’re going to get you out.
USBE&IT: What prevents other schools from replicating that success?
Dr. Lomax: You might have to ask those other colleges that one. But what I still see, particularly in the STEM disciplines, is this question of belief. I was at Google, where my daughter (a Howard University student) was an intern. I was meeting with members of the African-American employee group there. I was sitting next to a young man who has a Ph.D. in computer science from an elite Southwestern university, and he said to me, “I can’t tell you how often as I pursued this degree, I would continue to have professors who would say, ‘This really isn’t for you.'” So there is still in the professoriate, in the academy, a belief that African Americans don’t have the intellectual firepower. So I think we still encounter stereotypes. We still encounter misconceptions. We still encounter a lack of belief in our intellectual capability.
USBE&IT: What about among employers? Do you get the sense they respect HBCUs?
Dr. Lomax: We’re seeing a real uptick in American companies’ recognition of the demographic shift that the country is going through. People who gave lip service to diversity a decade ago are working more energetically to identify opportunities for bringing African American and other graduates of color into their companies. Here at UNCF, we have been growing more scholarship programs that are focused on careers in STEM and continuing careers in financial services. Like so many higher education institutions, I think HBCUs are going to have to do an even better job mapping out career options for our students. That means we’re going to see not just a focus on critical thinking and communication but I think we’re going to see students getting proficiency in the use of technology, using some of the team building and group work practices that we are seeing in American businesses.
USBE&IT: Looking ahead, do you see most HBCUs being up for that task?
Dr. Lomax: There is a belief within higher education that only the best survive. You know, I think we can build fitness. I know at UNCF we’re doing everything we can to build stronger capability at our institutions. Much of that is around financial capability. We have worked at UNCF to help schools build their fundraising and to help them tap into what would seem to be one of their most important sources of funds, their alumni. I am proud to say that one of the institutions we invested in, Claflin University, today is the first HBCU to have over 50 percent of its alumni donating to its annual fund. They have surpassed Spelman, which is typically No. 1. With the right kind of investment, our institutions can build the strength and the capability to not just survive but to prosper.
Dr. Ivory Toldson, deputy director, White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities
USBE&IT: Some critics have argued that Obama Administration policies, including tighter standards for Parent Plus loans and plans for college ratings, are hurting historically Black colleges. What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Toldson: I think every policy has to be viewed very carefully, and I think sometimes policies that have good intentions may adversely affect a certain sector. The Parent Plus loans, if people look at why the changes were made, they would see that it was a decision made to protect consumers. It was made by an administration that saw itself taking on the burden of some irresponsible credit decisions from the housing market to students that seemed to go unchecked in the previous administration. The changes were done without doing an impact assessment to see how they would affect HBCUs, and the Secretary of Education has conceded that there were some unintended consequences. Since then, there have been steps taken, such as the reconsideration process, which allows parents to be reconsidered if they were rejected, and that resulted in about 97 percent of all the parents who went through the process getting in. There was also an effort to come up with some consensus between the HBCU community and the federal government. The loan standards did not go back to where they were, but they did get moved in a direction that the majority of the HBCU community was happy with. Those changes went into effect in March, and we will be watching closely to see whether it has the intended effect, which is to see to it that every student who wants to go to an HBCU gets an opportunity to do that.
USBE&IT: How would you describe the role of historically black colleges today, and how has that changed in the last 30 or 40 years?
Dr. Toldson: HBCUs are very, very important in making sure that every student, regardless of their race, is afforded an opportunity for higher education. HBCUs have been very successful in producing graduates who have gone on to great things. Different students require different things. A lot of students need to have their culture affirmed, and they need to be in an environment where who they are is valued and appreciated and they see models of people who look like them who have done great things. There are over 100 institutions, and they range considerably in the type of offerings they have for students.
USBE&IT: What accounts for the success of HBCUs?
Dr. Toldson: I think they are more nurturing. Modeling is an important characteristic of that. When I say that, I mean you have Black students who are seeing a lot of Black professors. There are many Black students at predominantly white institutions that have never seen a Black professor, except maybe in a Black studies class. At HBCUs you are seeing Black physics professors, Black computer science professors, biology professors. I think HBCUs share characteristics with a lot of smaller institutions in that there is much more of a focus on undergraduates.
USBE&IT: Do employers value HBCU graduates, or is that more on a case-by-case basis?
Dr. Toldson: It is on a case-by-case basis. Many of them do. Many of them don’t. There are constantly employers saying they can’t find quality Black applicants. Many of them are not looking at HBCUs. Then there are many others that use HBCUs as their primary recruitment ground, sometimes to the dismay of Black students who attend predominantly white institutions. There is also an employer who said that having U.S. citizens was very important to their agency, so they liked to recruit at HBCUs because they have more U.S. citizens. A lot of colleges now, most of their STEM students are mostly people from another country. At HBCUs, you have STEM students who mostly are not only Black but they are U.S. citizens. Some people talk about the advantages they have coming from HBCUs, but many others lament the biases people hold toward HBCUs.
USBE&IT: What will it take for historically Black colleges and universities to have a future that is as glorious as their past?
Dr. Toldson: One, they have to focus on innovation, and they have to look at their infrastructure and administration and the services that they provide to their students and make sure they are modernized. Make sure that they use technology appropriately. Make sure they are not hanging on to antiquated systems. This is everything from financial aid, to admissions, to advising. There needs to be a strong emphasis on getting the infrastructure right so that the student experiences are really good. HBCUs also need to make sure that they understand their own numbers and metrics. We are living in a time of hyper-information. We did not get to talk much about the college rating system, but that is something many HBCUs have some anxiety about. But the reality is that the way that information is available right now, anyone with just a little bit of technological savvy can pull lots of indicators of a university. Some of these numbers could be drastically transformed by just doing some small things. Some HBCUs are small enough that if they graduate 50 more students, they could significantly change their graduation rate. Doing things like targeting students, giving emergency grants-sometimes you could keep a student in school with just $300 or something like that. So HBCUs really have to take care of their own metrics and take them seriously.