4 Questions With US Education Secretary

During National HBCU Week, Arne Duncan challenges black colleges on graduation rates.

Arne Duncan
Arne Duncan

In case you missed it, it’s National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week. In a presidential proclamation observing the occasion, President Obama remarked:

HBCUs continue a proud tradition as vibrant centers of intellectual inquiry and engines of scientific discovery and innovation. New waves of students, faculty, and alumni are building on their rich legacies and helping America achieve our goal of once again leading the world in having the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. This week, as we celebrate the vast contributions HBCUs have made to our Nation, we are reminded of their role in fulfilling a great American truth — that equal access to a quality education can open doors for all our people.  

On Monday the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities commenced a two-day conference for nearly all of the nation’s HBCU presidents and senior administration officials to discuss a range of topics, including international programs, technology and innovation, and developing partnerships — all with an eye toward reaching the president’s goal of creating the world’s most educated and competitive workforce by 2020.

Shortly after delivering the conference’s keynote address on Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan chatted with The Root about how improving college access is only one piece of the puzzle, his challenge for HBCUs and why he wants black men to teach.

The Root: What progress have you seen HBCUs make toward helping reach the president’s 2020 goal?

Arne Duncan: Well, it’s early. But there was a recent report from the Pew Research Center which showed that we actually have record-high enrollment of both blacks and Latinos in higher education. Now, that’s got to translate to graduation rates ultimately, but it was a very encouraging early indicator. We’ve worked really hard on access, and we’re thrilled that we were able to get Pell Grants to an all-time high and keep that when so many people in Congress want to cut back. Obviously access is critically important, but it’s just one step along the journey. Now we’re putting a huge emphasis on getting those completion numbers up. 

I’m hopeful, but we’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us. We’d basically like to see HBCUs produce about a 50 percent increase in college graduates each year, going from about 35,000 to about 54,000. People were engaged and motivated [at the conference today]. I think people see how important this is, not just for the black community but for the country.

TR: What strategies are the administration and colleges using to improve graduation rates?

AD: We’re asking Congress for $123 million for what we’re calling a “First in the World” competition. This would enable us to incentivize colleges and universities doing really creative work — particularly amongst blacks and Latinos, first-generation college-goers and English-language learners — to increase access and completion. So I challenge every single university, and say that they need to have a clear goal and a plan for how they’re going to execute against that goal, and how they’re going to hold themselves accountable each year to make progress.