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Are Historically Black Colleges Worth It?

Are Historically Black Colleges Worth It?

Some scholars suggest that the “unique educational services” once provided by HBCUs to Black students have now disappeared.

By Dwayne Ashley

Economists Drs. Roland Fryer of Harvard University and Michael Greenstone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently undertook a dense statistical analysis, which concluded that attending historically Black colleges and universities may once have conferred a “wage advantage” for African-American graduates compared to those graduating from majority White institutions — but no longer.

But do the data actually support such a conclusion? Or the Fryer-Greenstone suggestion that the “unique educational services” once provided by HBCUs to Black students have now disappeared? Hardly.

Higher education costs money, lots of it, as any family with college-bound children can attest. But calculating the value of a college education can be a tricky business and, when measured by a single set of criteria, fundamentally misleading.

First, the Fryer-Greenstone discovery of a “wage differential” over 20 years (1970s to 1990s) is a tenuous barometer of educational value for money and not necessarily a measure of overall educational equality. How, for example, would you evaluate income differences between a school focused on the humanities and fine arts (endeavors usually associated with lower earnings) with a school that has a large business and technology program? One suspects that career goals, financial aid, likelihood of acceptance and caliber of instruction will weigh much more heavily on a student’s decision to apply than a hypothetical paycheck 10 years after graduation.

In fact, as Fryer and Greenstone acknowledge, HBCUs registered significant gains between the 1970s and 1990s in several areas traditionally used to measure educational quality, including SAT scores of incoming freshmen and per capita student spending.

Second, any wage difference between graduates of HBCUs and majority institutions is statistically swamped by the ever-widening gap between those who earn a college degree and those who don’t. Simply put, large numbers of HBCUs consistently graduate African-American students at higher rates than do majority schools. This fact indicates that HBCUs’ retention rates, while roughly 33 percent, are higher than those of majority institutions.
Would many of these HBCU students excel at majority colleges and universities? Of course. But many others without the necessary family backing, academic preparation or financial support to attend such schools would not.

Even today, a remarkable percentage of HBCU students are the first members of their family to graduate from an institution of higher learning. For such students, HBCUs are vital in meeting the education needs of minority populations too often ignored or underserved by majority public and private institutions of higher learning. I see this reality every day as head of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, where we have provided more than $60 million in merit-based scholarships to minority students: 98 percent of whom graduate, and more than half of whom continue on to graduate school or professional study.

Fryer and Greenstone speculate about the negative impact of U.S. v. Fordice (1992), which required states to either integrate HBCUs or find “educational justification” for their continuance. But HBCUs have responded to this challenge by successfully integrating their student bodies and faculties to reflect the nation’s growing diversity, while still remaining true to their core mission of providing affordable, high-quality education to African-Americans.

There is another possible explanation for the relative wage decline, one that Fryer and Greenstone acknowledge: The data could reflect improvements in how majority institutions educated Black students, and not a decline in HBCU standards.

Looking at the data from this vantage point, the study could well be titled, “African-Americans Demonstrate Education Gains at Majority White Schools.”

Such a conclusion doesn’t even require particularly sophisticated analysis. Following the civil rights movement of the 1960s, for example, a relatively large number of African-American students entered the nation’s colleges and universities. The result was a period of turmoil and adjustment for students and institutions alike, as well as the lingering impact of persistent racism.

In retrospect, it is obvious that HBCUs, largely spared these wrenching social adjustments, would have advantages that could be reflected in relatively higher incomes after graduation. Twenty years later, however, America was a very different place. Although issues of discrimination and racial inequality persisted in the 1990s, it is clear that both majority colleges and their Black students became better equipped to succeed in the classroom and beyond.

The Fryer-Greenstone study underscores the dynamism and complexity of higher education in the United States, and HBCUs, like all colleges and universities, must continue to innovate, improve and strive for academic excellence.

To honor their historic mission, HBCUs cannot look to history but to the knowledge and skills required of today’s students to be successful in the classroom and in a global marketplace — and to the high calling of educating African-Americans and students of all racial and social backgrounds to take their rightful places as leaders of the next generation of Americans. When they can do that, there is no question that HBCUs are more than worth it.

— Dwayne Ashley is President and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

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