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Howard University (Howard University)

(The Root) -- Ivory Toldson, who was named deputy director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities on Thursday, will, along with new Director George Cooper, serve as a liaison between the executive branch and HBCUs across the country, as well as the voice of the HBCU community at the U.S. Department of Education. And he takes the responsibility personally.

Toldson -- a contributing editor at The Root, an associate professor at Howard University, a senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Negro Education -- is himself a product of two HBCUs.

"A question that really burns me up," he told The Root, is, "Are HBCUs relevant?"

It's a question, in Toldson's view, that many Americans seem to reserve for this particular type of institution, in a way that doesn't make sense. "There are limitations to a variety of different systems. The limitations of going to an online, for-profit college are glaring. But no one is asking whether they are relevant," he said. "The limitations of community colleges are glaring, but no one is asking whether they're relevant. The limitations of students of certain backgrounds going to big state universities and dropping out are glaring, but no one talks about that. To create this false narrative about a certain group of colleges is really disingenuous."

The White House initiative has been around since President Ronald Reagan established it with an executive order in 1981. It was transferred to the Office of the Secretary within the U.S. Department of Education in 2001.

Today, when the Obama administration named Toldson deputy director of the initiative and Cooper -- a senior fellow with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and former president of South Carolina State University -- executive director, it linked the program's purpose to President Barack Obama's goal of the United States having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Toldson says that HBCUs are well-situated to be an integral part of that effort. "What we know from the research is that there are students with certain characteristics who adapt better to the HBCU environment -- and this really cuts across race," he said, adding, "HBCUs are very diverse. One thing we know about them is that they do a lot more with less. Students who have comparable profiles coming out of high school tend to do better at HBCUs than at predominantly white universities. There are a lot of people doing great work and great research there, and the message needs to get out there to help people understand the power and promise, not just limitations."

In a statement released by the administration today, Cooper said that the program's promotion of the "excellence, innovation and sustainability of HBCUs" will help meet the administration's 2020 graduation-rate goal.

Both new leaders of the HBCU initiative know that it won't be easy, though. "We also have to find our place among the growing presence of community colleges which purport to serve some of the same functions that HBCUs have traditionally done at a cheaper price," said Toldson. "But it's important that we continue the legacy that HBCUs have had for over a century."