HBCUs have a rich history and powerful mystique that continue to shape African-American culture and inspire academic success. In popular culture, HBCUs have provided the context for movies, such as School Daze and Drumline, and television series, such as A Different World and The Quad.
Most of America’s civil rights giants were educated at HBCUs, including Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington and Thurgood Marshall. In our time, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Barbara Jordan, Rep. John Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman and Douglas Wilder all earned their degrees at HBCUs. Legendary artists and authors came out of HBCUs, such as Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison.
Even though our nation’s HBCUs make up just 3 percent of colleges and universities, they produce 27 percent of African-American students with bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields and one-fourth of the bachelor’s degrees in education awarded to African Americans.
This year, Morehouse College and eight other HBCUs are celebrating 150 years of service. In addition to Morehouse, the HBCUs that will celebrate their sesquicentennial in 2017 are Alabama State University, Barber-Scotia College (nonaccredited), Fayetteville State University, Howard University, Johnson C. Smith University, Morgan State University, St. Augustine’s University and Talladega College. Eight of the nine continue to thrive as fully accredited institutions of higher education.
As one of many higher education options, HBCUs have also been subject to fair and unfair scrutiny from education consumers, policymakers, cultural critics and social commentators. Many people who critique HBCUs base their opinions on speculation, biases and myths. Using the most recent data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, this article addresses some of the most common myths about HBCUs.
Myth 1: HBCUs have a declining enrollment.
The total enrollment of HBCUs has continued to make steady gains over the last two decades. According to the most recent data from IPEDS, the total enrollment of HBCUs collectively is 311,671, compared with 260,749 in 1990.
Seventy-nine of the 105 HBCUs surveyed have a larger enrollment today than they did in 1990. Only 26 HBCUs have experienced enrollment declines since 1990, with percentage drops ranging from 1 percent to 55 percent. Twelve HBCUs showed a loss of more than 20 percent of their student population in comparisons between their enrollment of 2012 and their enrollment in 1990.
In 2013, three HBCUs had an enrollment of more than 10,000 students. There are 31 HBCUs with an enrollment of fewer than 1,000 students. While a large student enrollment is generally regarded as a positive indicator for a school, the ideal size for a university varies. Therefore, enrollment gains or losses over time are a more reliable indicator of an institution’s health.
Myth 2: HBCUs are losing enrollment because more black students are choosing predominantly white institutions.
Although most HBCUs have grown enrollment since 1990, the data also reveals that the total gain in HBCU attendance has not outpaced the gains made in black students attending institutions of higher education, generally. However, HBCUs are not losing a lot of students to predominantly white institutions. HBCUs are generally more selective than they were 10 years ago, and are losing students to open-admissions community and for-profit colleges.
Over the past decade, state laws or board policies have restricted admissions at traditional four-year colleges based on the idea that students who are less academically prepared should begin their postsecondary matriculation at community colleges. These changes include setting a minimum ACT or SAT requirement for public universities or prohibiting public four-year colleges from offering remedial classes.
In tandem, some private HBCUs have lost enrollment because of governance issues and difficulties marketing the tuition against more affordable higher education options. Sixty-five of the 101 HBCUs that qualify for federal student financial aid have selective admissions, while the remaining 36 campuses have open admissions. Only four of the 34 open-admissions HBCUs are public.
Myth 3: The ratio of women to men at HBCUs is something ridiculous, like 15-to-1.
The current ratio of black women to black men at HBCUs is 1.57-to-1. Of the 311,671 students who currently attend HBCUs, 121,414 are men and 190,257 are women. Coppin State University is the most skewed at 3.5-to-1. Almost 20 percent (19.5 percent) of all coed HBCUs have either an even split or have more men than women. For the three single-gender schools, Morehouse College has about as many men as the combined female population of Spelman College and Bennett College.
Myth 4: HBCUs have low graduation rates.
The average graduation rate for students across all four-year HBCUs is 42 percent—slightly above the graduation rate for black students at all institutions, but less than half the rate of the most selective PWIs. The three universities with the highest graduation rates for black students within six years are Yale, Harvard and Princeton. For HBCUs, the top three are Spelman College, Howard University and Hampton University.
However, analyses that evaluate the success of colleges and universities by observing their six-year cohort graduation rate can be illusive. On the surface, graduation rates tell us little about a college’s or university’s ability to educate a racially and economically diverse student body.
Of the 23 colleges and universities in the nation that have a graduation rate for black students in the 90s, the average annual cost of tuition and fees is $43,700 and the average percent of the student body that is Pell-eligible is 15 percent. By contrast, only five HBCUs have an annual tuition greater than $20,000, and the average percent of the total HBCU enrollment that is Pell-eligible is 72.8 percent. In short, HBCU graduation rates reflect the chances they take to educate low-income students, not the quality of education they provide.
Myth 5: HBCUs offer a substandard education, and many have accreditation issues.
When it comes to producing black graduates who go on to earn Ph.D.s, HBCUs compete successfully with the nation’s best universities, including Ivy League universities, elite private colleges and flagship state universities.
Research demonstrates that HBCU graduates enjoy greater financial success in their careers, and U.S. rankings consistently show that HBCUs are among the top producers of students who continue their educations through graduate and professional schools. My own research indicates that for black students, HBCUs are clearly superior to predominantly white institutions for promoting positive student-faculty relationships and students’ sense of belonging among STEM majors. According to a recent report from the National Science Foundation, 21 of the top 50 institutions for producing black graduates who go on to receive their doctorates in science and engineering are HBCUs.
Myth 6: HBCUs have low endowments.
The average endowment across HBCUs that participate in federal Title IV funding is $27.7 million. Seven HBCUs have endowments that exceed $100 million: Howard University, Spelman College, Hampton University, Xavier University of Louisiana, Morehouse College, Meharry Medical College and Tuskegee University.
However, some HBCUs have lower-than-desired endowments and need financial support from stakeholders. Fourteen four-year HBCUs have endowments that are less than $2 million, or less than 1 percent of the average endowment for all HBCUs.
Myth 7: HBCUs suffered while President Obama was in office.
The federal government is responsible for nearly $5 billion of revenue annually to 101 HBCUs that qualify for federal support, through grants, contracts, appropriations and student aid. Across every indicator of federal support, revenue to HBCUs increased while President Barack Obama was in office. This data reflects the first six years that Obama was in office because the last two years are not yet available.
HBCUs received nearly $3 billion more from federal grants, contracts and appropriations in President Obama’s first six years in office (2009-2014) than they did in President George W. Bush’s last six years in office (2003-2008). The worst year of federal-grant revenue to HBCUs under Obama ($1.9 billion) tops the best year under Bush ($1.7 billion).
One of Obama’s signature achievements was expanding the Pell Grant. When he entered office, HBCUs received approximately $536 million from the Pell program to support low-income college students. In his third year, HBCUs received approximately $867 million.
However, Congress established a series of measures in 2010 to curb federal spending on the Pell program, including setting a six-year cap and ending support for summer school. Consequently, HBCUs lost Pell funding every year between 2010 and 2014. When accounting for profits and losses, HBCUs netted a $200 million gain in Pell during President Obama’s years in office, with a $330 million gain occurring in his second and third year.
Federal student loans followed a similar trend. The Department of Education took steps early in Obama’s administration to control lending, which had immediate benefits to HBCUs. In Obama’s second year, the total amount that HBCUs received from federal student loan programs for undergraduates increased by more than $100 million. However, changes in the Federal Direct PLUS Loan Program made tens of thousands of HBCU students ineligible.
Through coordinated efforts, in October 2014, the Department of Education announced revised regulations of PLUS loans, which reversed most of the changes that had disproportionately impacted HBCUs. During the years that the changes to PLUS loans were in place, HBCUs lost approximately $55.8 million in loans. Accounting for this loss, HBCUs’ revenue from all federal student loan programs increased by $117.8 million over the years Obama was in office.
Notwithstanding HBCUs’ success over several generations, many HBCUs have experienced financial hardships and administrative challenges. I do not challenge the myths associated with HBCUs to minimize legitimate concerns but, rather, to provide the best information to HBCU advocates who are genuinely interested in promoting HBCU growth and sustainability. Many detractors have used misinformation about HBCUs to question the relevancy of HBCUs.
Using myths and misinformation to question the relevancy of HBCUs is not new. Last year I met the legendary president of Xavier University, Norman Francis. He told me that the year he became president of Xavier in 1968, someone asked him if HBCUs were still necessary.
For HBCUs to achieve greatness, they have to relinquish the posture of defending their relevance and get in the stance of asserting their excellence.