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For Public HBCUs, A New Type of Advocacy

WASHINGTON — Though it has been just two years since Dr. Lorenzo Esters joined the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, or APLU, his efforts to orchestrate new partners while forging coalitions appear to be yielding fruit. Esters is charged with representing the interests of 18 Black land-grant colleges and public Black colleges and universities.

“My advocacy for the public Black land-grant universities is primarily in the area of partnership-building with the federal, business and philanthropic community,” says Esters, vice president of the Office for Access and the Advancement of Public Black Universities at APLU. To help him open some of those doors while identifying dollars for the public institutions reeling in the wake of state budget shortfalls, Esters in April formed a nine-member advisory board of senior-level officials representing companies and institutions that include the Siemens Foundation, GEICO insurance, Educational Testing Service, AAA, Monsanto and even the NFL Players Association.

Even though APLU has plans for hefty initiatives such as focusing on diversity in global education, Esters still lists helping low-income and underrepresented students as priorities.

“It’s wondering about the future of minority and low-income students and whether we are prepared to serve these changing demographics,” says Esters. “We are losing so many students who are in the pipeline—students of color and low-income students who, number one, can’t afford it (higher education), and, number two, the system fails to reach them.”

That is where new initiatives aimed at ensuring college access for the nation’s low-income and underrepresented college students come in. Esters is counting on the leadership of the 1890 Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions, or MSIs, to embrace and help drive an ambitious agenda. An agenda, he adds, that also supports President Obama’s 2020 goal of increasing the number of Americans with college degrees. While the national graduation rate for all college students is about 56 percent, the college graduation rate for African-Americans is approximately 43 percent.

Although some people view land-grant institutions as higher education’s misunderstood underdogs for their roots in an 1890 congressional bill that made college accessible for Black students and agriculture pivotal to the schools’ mission, today’s “1890 land-grant universities are in a prime position to assist with President Obama’s charge to increase graduation rates and boost American higher education,” says Dr. JoAnn Haysbert, president of Langston University, an 1890 school in Langston, Okla.

Haysbert says too often the 1890s get overlooked for what they can offer to higher education beyond the study of agriculture and the environment. “We are that plus more,” adds Haysbert who touts the percentage of Langston’s science graduates who pursue advanced degrees and enter medical school. “About 80 percent in chemistry and about 66 percent in biology,” she says.  

These are accomplishments not usually associated with “our land grants,” adds Haysbert, who is also the chairman-elect of the APLU’s Council of 1890 Universities.

STEM Projects

The APLU’s new college access initiatives are also in step with the Obama administration’s efforts to revive a lagging science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, workforce. Two of APLU’s new programs will be aimed at both faculty and students in STEM. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the association will launch the Science-Mathematics Teacher Imperative this year to increase the quality, quantity and diversity of science and mathematics teachers in K-12.

“Of the 3.5 million teachers in the U.S., only 5 percent are African-American females and only 1.8 percent are African-American males,” Esters points out.

The association’s Minority Male STEM Initiative, launched last year, is being led by a national team of researchers and experts in areas including student counseling and evaluation surveying and reporting on policies, practices and programs that support the recruitment, retention, graduation and transition to careers in STEM fields. The team has the task of coming up with a plan to help fulfill the initiative’s mission of increasing the number of minority male college graduates in STEM disciplines. The group will issue its findings in December.

The two-part STEM initiative is also expected to include replicating best practices with minority males and partnerships with K-12 schools and community colleges. But at the end of the day, Esters says that what matters to him is that minority students have college access and opportunities. The type of school students choose—majority- or minority-serving—does not matter, he points out.

“My focus is to go where the students are, regardless of the type of campus that they’re on. The focus has to be two-fold. We are supporting the 1890s, but the other focus has to be on the changing demographics—students have choices and some are going to MSIs (minority-serving institutions) and some are going to majority institutions.”

But wherever they go, says Esters, “We have to ensure that they have access to higher education regardless of the type of campus. So it is important for minority institutions to have a focus on these students as well as majority institutions.”

Recognizing both majority- and minority-serving institutions with financial rewards when they can demonstrate success in this area is one of the initiatives one new advisory board is considering. Esters pointed out that, because this is a plan under consideration, he declined to discuss the specifics of how much each school might receive.

The Path to Partnerships

Achieving what Esters calls “innovative approaches to the common goal” of college access for the underserved has also meant looking at a large, racially diverse, and targeted landscape of partners and organizations. So far, Esters has found support for the work he does at APLU from such organizations as the College Board, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.

Esters is quick to point out that his strategy is all about business, relationships and achieving outcomes for his schools and their students.

“I’m not just looking to talk the game,” Esters declares. “I’m looking for folk who can help me develop data so that we can do surveys [and] write compelling reports about the needs of these communities.”

Esters also hopes that the heft needed to help implement and support APLU’s ambitious initiatives aimed at increasing the college-going rate and the persistence of the nation’s minority students will also come from the small group of Black institutions known as 1890s.

These institutions, Haysbert says, are poised, ready and moving along with an agenda endorsed by the 1890 Council that includes expanding entrepreneurial opportunities that support fundraising, brokering public-private investments, and new partnerships with the federal government, corporations and foundations.

1890s Into the Future

“He came very excited about the role that these 18 institutions have in the American enterprise of higher education,” Haysbert says of Esters. She also credits him for “corralling us together, not just to look at the history of how we (the 1890s) got established, but most importantly to chart the course for where we are going.”

Haysbert also says she recognizes that inherent in their way forward is an emphasis on diversity and partnerships, sometimes where there were none. But as the 1890s remain true to their mission of teaching, research and public service, Haysbert explains, “We also understand that partnerships are the wave and way of the future. So, when Lorenzo talks about diversity, partnerships are a part of that emphasis and plan. We have to not only diversify our own portfolio, but we must embrace diversity as we talk about things that must be done for HBCUs” and for other minority-serving institutions.

Meanwhile, Dr. Frederick Humphries, former president of Florida A&M University (FAMU), an 1890 institution, wonders whether a strategy anchored generally in diversity “could signal to the 1890s and the other public Black colleges and universities that they will not get the attention they need.”

But the APLU is a big place, says Dr. Harold Martin Sr., chancellor of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, an 1890 school. Martin maximizes his institution’s membership in the association by actively working with all colleges and universities, not just the 1890s.

Such alliances, says Martin, are important as these Black colleges grapple with positioning themselves for the 21st century. As his board prepared to approve a new strategic plan for the university in July, Martin is adamant about the role that racial diversity will play at the Greensboro, N.C., campus.

Once the refuge of Black families and subsistence farmers in the South, extension programs operated by the 1890 schools were the go-to place for information and training on agriculture. But time, and the dwindling number of family farms, Martin says, has prompted schools like NCA&T to “expand our reach so that our education and extension efforts touch more than just Black farmers in the state.”

Like Esters, Martin also sees a world growing more “diverse and global” and one ripe for spawning new programs and attracting new types of students. The strategic plan NCA&T hoped to approve in late July was expected to include efforts to recruit more non-Black and international students to its ranks. The plan also focused on students being ready to do college-level work without remediation and students who have strong backgrounds in the STEM fields.

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