HBCU Leaders Consider Partnerships Key to Remaining Competitive in Online Era

Creating partnerships to link students across campuses and offering online academic programs to students were two of the solutions presidents of some of the country’s historically Black colleges and universities say will help keep their institution competitive as more options for higher education emerge. 

With 181 academic programs located on its Washington, D.C., campuses, Howard University has more programs than any of its competitors, said Dr. Sidney Ribeau, president of the institution.

“We have everything from your health to your soul,” he said. 

But after losing almost $300 million in its endowments in the market downturn, Howard may not be able to continue to sustain those programs and Ribeau is exploring ways to technologically link to HBCU campuses so Howard students can complete programs at its sister schools. Howard would also reciprocate the opportunity for students enrolled on other campuses.

“We are all in this together,” Ribeau said Friday at the 36th annual meeting of the National Associate for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), which lobbies Congress on behalf of HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions of higher education. 

“We need to think about benefiting from the programs at all of our institutions,” said Ezell Brown, chairman and chief executive of Education Online Services Corp., a Coral Springs, Fla.-based firm that works with almost 400 educational clients to set up online degree programs. He told presidents that the paradigm for securing education has shifted and HBCUs must decide if they want to be part of the future.

“Private online colleges are taking students from HBCUs,” Brown said. If 10 percent of the students enrolled in online private colleges return to HBCUs, “that is a billion dollars going back to HBCUs,” he said. Education Online Services is working with Barber-Scotia College, Jackson State University, Morris Brown College, Tougaloo College and Langston University.

The hurdle that HBCUs have to overcome when deciding to offer online courses leading to degree completion is the reduced ability to communicate the culture of the campus to the students, said Nathan Saunders, general vice president of the Washington Teachers’ Union. This can be overcome by requiring “seat hours” to obtain the degree as well as planning events during the traditional spring break period and other opportunities to meet in a social environment, he said.

In addition to pursuing options to connect online in order to maintain competitiveness, minority-serving institutions also may have to wrestle their historical missions and perhaps broaden their outlook on their target population as well as who will seek enrollment at their schools, said Dr. William Pollard, president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A member of the City University of New York system, Medgar Evers has served the Caribbean and African-American communities since 1970. The predominantly Black institution’s student population demographics are changing, Pollard said.

Additionally, CUNY has asked that the college give priority admission status to high school graduates, community college students and transfer students from private schools in good standing — all while being required to limit its growth. 

HBCUs also must begin to consider the options students have for obtaining their education. In addition to traditional four-year institutions, online schools and state schools offering online degree programs, HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions now must compete with community colleges.

“We have to get over the snobbery around two-year campuses: It’s the way of the future,” said Dr. Kassie Freeman, interim president of Southern University System, which offers two-year degree programs with a niche in the health sciences.