When it comes to understanding historically Black colleges and universities, we don’t have good data.
An essay about surveys may sound like boring fare. However, when it comes to understanding Black colleges — their strengths and challenges — we don’t have good data. There are myriad questions that go unanswered by researchers, policymakers, and Black college administrators themselves that could easily be addressed if Black colleges would participate more fully in national surveys.
Only 13 Black colleges participated in the recent National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) survey, and 23 completed the Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey. Failure to participate has a harrowing impact on the way that Black colleges are viewed in the fundraising world — not only by researchers but by potential donors. As a result of not completing the NACUBO and VSE surveys, researchers, donors and policymakers know virtually nothing about Black college endowments and, more important, endowment growth over time. Moreover, they know little about alumni giving at Black colleges. Of course, any fundraiser in the college and university setting knows that donors want to discern if alumni support a particular institution before they make a donation. Stated bluntly, research shows that donors are more likely to give if there is an institutional commitment on the part of alumni.
Why don’t many Black college administrators complete surveys? The answer rests partly in the way the research data have been used in the past to criticize and derail the educational mission of Black colleges. A well-known example of the misuse of research data took place in 1967 when two Harvard sociologists, Christopher Jencks and David Riesman, conducted interviews with a few Black college administrators and used these interviews to make vast generalizations about Black colleges as a whole, labeling them “academic disaster areas.” Because the sociologists were from Harvard and their article was published in the Harvard Educational Review, it was given great credence, with Time magazine and The New York Times running stories touting the research and its merits.
As a result of the national coverage of the Jencks and Reisman study, the very existence of Black colleges, as well as continued financial support, were called into question. Furthermore, Black college leaders felt duped — as if they had provided a well-rounded portrayal of their institutions to the researchers, but all that was represented in the article were the problems and the mistakes. Because of the lingering mistrust that stems from this and other incidents, many Black college administrators do not complete surveys nor participate in research projects pertaining to their institutions.
In addition to the trust factor, many Black college administrators find it difficult to complete national surveys because of a lack of staff and infrastructure. Time spent completing surveys (and there are often many) is time taken away from fundraising, getting ready for an accreditation review or preparing for a board meeting. But, does this lack of participation actually hurt Black colleges in the end? Yes! Although it is important to make sure that anyone doing research on your institution is trustworthy, once this is done, it is just as vital to participate in research projects, especially those that can assist the Black college community in answering important questions. It is crucial that researchers, policymakers, potential funders and Black college leadership have a deeper understanding of the problems the plague Black colleges and, more important, the successes that surround these institutions. Most researchers will include participants in the research process, conducting “member checks” with those involved to access the validity of the researchers’ interpretations. And most researchers will share the results of their studies with those institutions participating, ensuring that Black colleges can learn from the research.
Perhaps the most important reason that Black colleges need to participate in national surveys and large scale research projects pertaining to their institutions is this: if they do not, their stories will not be told. When higher education and its successes are hailed in the media, where will the examples from Black colleges be? Although there are risks when participating in research — that an institution’s weaknesses will surface — there are great benefits, including knowledge that will make Black colleges stronger and ensure their future.
— Dr. Marybeth Gasman is an associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions.
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