To a hammer, goes the saying, the world is a nail. Perhaps to an economics writer, even a distinguished one like David Leonhardt of the New York Times, the world is an economics equation. And perhaps that is what has led Leonhardt astray in a post to the Times' Economix blog, "The Declining Payoff From Black Colleges."

Leonhardt's "Declining Payoff" post responded to reactions he received to a previous post, "Revisiting the Value of Elite Colleges." In the course of reporting that research indicated that most graduates of elite colleges like Harvard and MIT don't make higher incomes than those who graduate from good but non-elite colleges, Leonhardt noted that the rule did not seem to apply to "black students, Latino students, low-income students and students whose parents did not graduate from college," for whom attending an elite college appeared to translate into higher earnings. "Students who choose a historically black college over an elite college," he wrote, "may be hurting their future earnings potential."


In his "Declining Payoff" post, Leonhardt doubled down on his argument. "There's more evidence for this finding than I knew," he wrote, citing a study by economists at Harvard and MIT. Much further down in the post, he includes the caveat, "Of course, wages are just one measure of a student's satisfaction with a school."

Now, that should have been his headline: Wages are, indeed, just one measure of a student's satisfaction with a school. And they are just one measure of a college's importance, not only to the students who attend it, but to the society at large.

Take the group of students that Leonhardt refers to in the first post: black and Latino students, low-income students and first-generation learners — students whose parents did not graduate from college. For how many of them is attending an Ivy League school a realistic option? Yet, those are the students most in need of a college education, and whom the economy and country most need to get one. With the economy's growing need for college-educated workers, and with significant percentages of higher-income students already on track for college, those are the groups on whose education we need to focus.


In fact, of course, picking a college is a uniquely personal decision, not subject to a simple (and simplistic) scan of postgraduation earnings statistics. Students and their parents understand this, even if economists don't. A soon-to-be-published study by UNCF's Patterson Research Institute (with support from the Mellon Foundation) found that HBCU students are acutely aware of what a college offers them. They know themselves, and they know what they need and want from a college. How much access to faculty members do they need? Which colleges offer the academic programs that lead to the career path they want? 

"I wanted to attend a small college that would allow me to really … thrive. I wanted to know my professors," a student at one of UNCF's member HBCUs told the researchers who conducted the Patterson Research Institute study. "I wanted to have small classes, and I also wanted an institution that was known for academic excellence … and of the historically black colleges that I considered, Brooksville College [not its real name; participants were promised anonymity for themselves and their colleges], definitely emerged as number one just because of its reputation for producing … women who serve."

And which colleges provide an education that guides you not only to professional success but also to service to the community and the country? There's an answer to that. Washington Monthly ranks colleges each year on what they contribute to the public good in terms of social mobility, research and service. An HBCU, Morehouse, was ranked first among more than 250 liberal arts colleges, with three HBCUs ranking in the top 15 and six in the top 30. Three more (there are only 47 private HBCUs in the country) are among the top 30 baccalaureate institutions. Morehouse places just ahead of Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore; Spelman College ahead of Wellesley and Bowdoin; and Tougaloo College in Mississippi ahead of Bates and Smith colleges.

Leonhardt does quote the Harvard and MIT researchers as admitting that "[o]n the positive side, HBCU attendees became relatively more likely to be engaged in social, political and philanthropic activities." But he follows with their observation that even among graduates who go into public-sector and nonprofit work, elite college alumni make more on average than HBCU alums do. Similarly, Leonhardt quotes the researchers that "the most qualified African Americans were increasingly choosing HBCUs," but seems to trump that fact by adding that they still make lower incomes.

Making a good income is a perfectly legitimate reason for choosing a college. But it should not be the only reason. To devote such focused attention to a college's record of producing high earners gives that consideration a primacy it doesn't deserve.

Michael Lomax is president and CEO of UNCF (the United Negro College Fund). He is a contributing editor for The Root.