The Good News About HBCUs

By advancing science innovation, this federal official is helping black colleges compete.

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John Silvanus Wilson: The messaging about the value of HBCUs is easier now, with the national goal established by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. That goal is to have the most educated, competitive and diverse workforce in the world by 2020. What that means is we're going right by this question of whether HBCUs are necessary or valuable. We are simply saying that we need HBCUs to reach this national goal, and we need them to improve their productivity and their product.

This is about the future. Therefore we are not looking for corrective, "save the day" gifts. We are looking for creative, "create tomorrow" investments.

TR: In 2009 you put out a call for HBCU presidents to show you their academic strengths. What are some examples of the things they shared with you?

JSW: The response was initially slow but certain. We are building an inventory of HBCU strengths. A lot of it skews toward health and health-disparities research. For instance, there's world-class AIDS research at Claflin University, there's cancer research at Hampton University, and just a broad range of health research at places like Alcorn State University and Jackson State University.

TR: Why is it important to advance STEM education at HBCUs in particular?

JSW: There's a STEM emphasis nationally. President Obama, Secretary Duncan and the entire administration have STEM as a priority. These disciplines are at the foundation of this knowledge economy.

It is the language of the present day and of the future, and technical proficiency is required for most of the jobs and other opportunities that are now emerging. The folks in China certainly know that, as do the folks in India and elsewhere in the world. America knows it, and needs to know it better.

TR: HBCUs are already a major source of African-American engineers and scientists -- they produce 33 percent of engineering degrees awarded to black undergraduates, and nine of the top 10 institutions (pdf) producing blacks with STEM doctoral degrees are black colleges. What's encouraging more students to go into these fields at HBCUs, compared with their numbers at traditional institutions?

That culture goes back to the days when their students had to be strengthened, not only intellectually, but in terms of character and readiness to engage what was often a hostile society. Although it's not in every case, a lot of HBCUs still have that legacy.

I believe the combination of that, and the requirements of the new economy, position HBCUs better than others to prepare students in these fields. If you are an African American, you actually have a better chance of becoming an engineer by going to North Carolina A&T or Howard than you do at a lot of other institutions, just based on the numbers.