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Since their founding, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been an important asset to the American higher education system. The original mission of this sector of institutions was to provide education to Blacks who at the time could not receive it elsewhere in the country because of both racial and systemic barriers that existed then and to a certain degree are still present today. While keeping true to their original mission, HBCUs currently provide educational resources to students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and provide access to higher education to students that are still plagued by the systemic barriers that exist within this country.

However, the prevailing narrative associated with HBCUs is that of relevancy, purpose and effectiveness in a “post-racial” America. It is clear that these questions of relevancy continue to be heightened by various higher education and media outlets. Comparing the performance of HBCUs to the larger higher education universe continue painting a picture that does not reflect the critical success and impacts these institutions not only have on their students and regional communities but to the competitiveness and sustainability of our nation’s economy.

Dr. Samaad Wes KeysDr. Samaad Wes Keys

To be clear, the pace of innovation in the 21st Century has forced HBCUs, like many other higher education institutions, to fundamentally change their business model and approach to serving a new generation of students and these changes have necessitated a shift in how we measure the performance of these institutions. Traditional measures of higher education institution (HEI) success such as student enrollment, academic programming and facility quality have been overshadowed by outcome measures that prioritize retention and graduation, and increasingly post-graduate outcomes (i.e., employment, graduate school, etc.).

And without historical and demographic context, these performance changes are facilitating narratives that position HBCUs as inadequate because their data is rarely disaggregated, and generally discussed exclusively in comparison to their better-resourced institutional peers. For example, most institutions report to the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDs) on the same data points, however, institutions are asked to report most data for first-time, full-time students only. A 2017 American Council on Education report showed that although federal graduation rates at public and private HBCUs were 34.1 percent and 43.9 percent, respectively, when compared to National Student Clearinghouse data, the completion rate for exclusively full-time students at public and private HBCUs increased to 62 percent and 66.7 percent, respectively. Although IPEDs’ Outcome Measures (OM) survey, released in 2017, captures a broader range of “non-traditional” students, including part-time, transfers and students that enroll throughout the year, not just fall (a major benefit to HBCUs), the current sanctioned compliance system does not reflect actual outcomes and still fails to account for race, gender and program-level outcomes.

Edward Smith-Lewis, Jr.Edward Smith-Lewis, Jr.

More importantly, data often fails to address the impact of historically negative narratives for HBCUs. For instance, four years ago,  the Department of Education released the College Scorecard to “provide students and families the critical information they need to make smart decisions about where to enroll for higher education” (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). The scorecard focused on five data points: costs, average amount borrowed, loan default rate, graduation rate and employment. The scorecard was touted as a comparison tool to help families make informed decisions about college selection. However, the College Scorecard failed to account the negative effect that it’s simplified approach would have on colleges that enroll underserved students, especially HBCUs and other minority serving institutions (MSIs) (Collins et al., 2014). Across the board, HBCUs underperformed on all metrics, except for costs, purportedly indicating an elevated level of inferiority for these institutions.

This is exacerbated by the increased emphasis on employment outcomes for colleges. Against this metric HBCUs are also hit by pundits. While it is true that HBCU graduates tend to have average salaries lower than graduates from non-HBCUs, the metric does not take into account the disproportionate student enrollment in education, social work, and other low-wage fields (Carnevale, Fasules, Porter, & Landis-Santos, 2016); the greater than average contribution HBCUs make to Black doctoral degree attainment; or the recent Gallup-Purdue University study that shows Black graduates from HBCUs tend to be better off in life than Black graduates from PWIs.

To tell a story more reflective of HBCU outcomes and showcase the significant contribution of HBCUs to society, we are offering the following recommendations:

  1. Get comfortable with your current data usage. As noted previously, times have changed, and the metrics that are being used to assess the effectiveness of HBCUs have changed and will continue to change. Before HBCUs can expect anyone to understand the nuances that exist within this sector of institutions, HBCUs must understand how data is currently used on their campuses. Take an inventory of your current data usage. Who is using data today on campus for decision-making, marketing or communications? Are there identifiable gaps? What data could be used that you aren’t using today to craft your narrative?
  2. Develop a plan to gather data that can aid in better storytelling. The type of data you collect will differ based on the types of stories you want to tell. What assets of your campus, student, or academic experience do you want to highlight? What data will support your anecdotes? Develop a plan that fully identifies your assets and the quantitative data you need to collect to illustrate those assets. Ensure that you include those anecdotes as well – qualitative data is data.
  3. Reach out to stakeholders to solicit feedback on your plan. Developing plans in isolation is never recommended. You should reach out to your intended audience to understand if your plan addresses their needs. Revise your plan based on the feedback from your stakeholder community. Consider developing nuances narratives for target audiences.
  4. Develop content. With a clear plan in hand, assign key constituents – students, staff, faculty and other leaders – components of the storytelling strategy to develop. Use the plan to provide directional support and ensure they consider the data elements necessary, but let their stories be organic. Collect content and gather campus constituents to surface themes and highlights. Create a rollout strategy and leverage internal or external communication experts to refine the narratives and prepare to go-live.
  5. Share, share, share! Invest time and energy in getting your story out there. Start with outlets under the institution’s control – print material, website, social channels. Share stories within your community and branch out as stories are solidified. Empower your faculty and administrators to evangelize your stories. Develop ready-to-use material for students, faculty and staff to share via their social media outlets.

The work of telling an accurate story of HBCUs in an era of increased accountability relies greatly on the efforts of an individual institution. However, to gain the impact that will be necessary to shift the narrative around HBCUs in the larger higher education context, institutional leadership must come together to articulate collectively for this community. Once these goals are established, engagement with legislators both on the state and federal levels will be critical for HBCUs. HBCUs must develop a national advocacy strategy that will strengthen not only their access to resources but will also strengthen their capacity to provide quality educational outcomes for the students they serve. This sector of institutions cannot afford to have strategies that only benefit their institutions. Instead, this national strategy should be focused on the spaces that are shared by institutions where a national HBCU strategy can be developed to coincide with campus-specific initiatives that are aimed at establishing new goals for the HBCU community at-large.

Dr. Samaad Wes Keys and Edward Smith-Lewis, Jr. work within UNCF’s Institute for Capacity Building as the strategist and director of the Career Pathways Initiative.

This is the final in a three part weekly series produced by the UNCF Pathways Initiative. 

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