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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.

At the state level, about half the nation's states have publicly put up their goals for hitting the president's target. And obviously, for each state to do that, each individual university has to do their part of it. This rolls all the way up from the university to the states and ultimately to the country. We want to encourage folks who are doing creative work to keep at-risk students in school, and we want everybody to have both access and attainment as their mission.

TR: You've also been visiting HBCUs over the past year for the "Teach" campaign to recruit African Americans and Latinos to go into teaching. What has the response been from students?

AD: One [school] I went to was Morehouse, and I literally just talked to the president there. He told me that their young men are fired up and moving in that direction. The receptivity and interest has been extraordinary, and I've been encouraged. I think the current lack of diversity and lack of men of color in the classroom is a huge challenge for our country. It is not a self-correcting problem; we have to do things differently. Unfortunately, too many traditional schools haven't been thoughtful, innovative or urgent about this issue. So we continue to partner very closely with HBCUs, and see more of their undergraduates contemplating careers in education. And men, obviously, are hugely important.

TR: Why is having more black male teachers, and black teachers in general, important?

AD: First, we have an increasingly diverse student body. I just want our nation's teachers to reflect the tremendous diversity of our students. If you look, big picture, at the percentages, today about 40 percent of our students are students of color, but only about 14 percent of our teachers are men and women of color. That's already a tremendous imbalance. It's just a fact that we are becoming a majority-minority country -- by 2050 we'll be there.

Then if you look in terms of men, black men are less than 2 percent of our nation's teachers. That's less than 1 in 50. Hispanic men are less than 2 percent. Put black and Hispanic men together, they're only about 3.5 percent of the nation's teachers. That's unacceptable to me. All of our students, but particularly our young boys of color, need to have those great mentors and role models.

Many of our young men are growing up in single-parent households, almost always with their moms, and not enough of them have a strong male role model. So I'm going to continue to travel the country and visit HBCUs as part of our Teach campaign, and encourage young people of great talent to go into teaching. If they want to serve the community, give back and make a difference, I can't think of a better place to do that than in the classroom.

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.