by Robert A. Scott
James Koch is Board of Visitors Professor of Economics Emeritus and president emeritus of Old Dominion University, and Omari Swinton is chair, director of graduate studies, and professor of economics at Howard University. He also is a past president of the National Economics Association. Together, they have written a scholarly analysis of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in a comprehensive manner and conversational tone. While a statistical study, the data and discussion are accessible to a lay audience, which is especially important as they provide policy recommendations deserving of contemplation and adoption. This is a model for the study of higher education in general, not just a particular set of institutions.
The authors provide statistical justification for their title, “Vital and Valuable.” However, they could just as well have added “Vulnerable” to the title for the historical underfunding of HBCUs and the demographic headwinds of the current moment that threaten the continued existence of many.
HBCUs were started in the late 19th century, first following the Civil War and again in 1890 because previous slave-holding states were reneging on the promise of the first Act. They were established to maintain segregation or to correct for its effects. There are now 102 public and private HBCUs as of 2021, with a collective enrollment of 300,000 students and an economic impact of $15 billion. Koch and Swinton chose 50 HBCUs, 30 public and 20 private, for their sample, along with 81 flagship universities, 26 large Metro leader institutions, and 60 primarily regional colleges and universities for their analysis and comparisons.
Among the important findings cited by the authors, organized by theme, are these:
- As a group, HBCUs have been losing enrollment due to decrease in high school graduation rates, the relative cost of tuition, location in rural areas, and competition from PWIs (Primarily White Institutions), thus threatening their continued existence
- Approximately three-quarters of the students at HBCUs are Black, and they tend to come from households with lower earned income than students who are enrolled at PWIs
- Almost two-thirds of HBCU undergraduates are women and the proportion of male students at HBCUs has fallen significantly in recent years
- HBCU student bodies are composed predominately of individuals from lower-income households
- Students at a representative HBCU take on more debt to pay for their higher education than do students at a typical PWI
- For a century or more, intercollegiate athletic programs have occupied an astonishingly large role in American higher education, including at HBCUs where the fielding of an NCAA FCS-level football program can lead to ta 25.4 percent larger enrollment
- After a century or more of deliberate financial starvation, public HBCUs in several states (Maryland, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) now receive more funding per FTE student than comparably situated PWIs, perhaps because enrollment has declined, and state funding has been stable
- Small size results in lower economies of scale
- Public HBCUs’ current financial stresses often relate less to a shortage of operating funds and more to the quality of their buildings and equipment
- The representative private HBCU usually has immense capital needs
- HBCUs as a group operate at a huge disadvantage in terms of the value of their endowments
- HBCUs generally perform better than Primarily White Institutions (PWIs) in terms of upward economic and social mobility for their graduates
- HBCUs continue to supply American society with impressive numbers of high-performing individuals
- HBCUs usually spend more on administration on a per student basis than PWIs
- The shuttering of HBCUs will wreak economic devastation on the small communities where they reside
Koch and Swinton arrive at these conclusions by studying data from their samples and conducting statistical analyses that are explained clearly. Opportunity Insights is an important source of data.
A significant finding is that a “Nineteen-year-old Black person with a given SAT score (let’s say 1,000) who come to an HBCU campus from a household with a given annual income (say, $35,000) is more likely to graduate than if they attended a PWI. Further, after they graduate, their mid-career income will be higher if they attended an HBCU rather than a PWI.”
The authors conclude their interesting and enlightening survey with policy recommendations for the federal and state governments, institutional governing boards, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses.
In particular, they recommend that Pell Grants be restored to their peak inflation-adjusted value in 2011 because they are so important for improving access and affordability, and HBCUs are so powerful in improving income mobility. They also recommend that institutions be required to meet certain minimum standards in terms of the proportion of students receiving Pell Grants in order to maintain eligibility for other federal funding.
They also recommend that federal loan guidelines and FAFSA forms and instructions be clarified and simplified and that better information be available to prospective students and their families. In addition, they recommend that college and universities be rewarded if they increase their costs less than the increase in the Consumer Price Index. Also, tax credits should be rethought as they do not promote college attendance by those not likely to go. The money should be used for Pell Grants.
In a refrain we have heard before, the authors recommend that state funding should be increased so that there is less reliance on student debt. More significantly, they state that merit scholarship programs should be rethought to ensure they promote access and do not exacerbate racial disparities.
The final two areas of recommendation concern the appointment, training, and evaluation of governing board members who are granted power without guidance, and nongovernmental organizations such as foundations that need to know the extraordinary results of HBCUs.
In conclusion, the authors note that “HBCUs provide Black students with a welcoming atmosphere, an increased probability of graduation, a demonstrated ability to generate upward economic mobility, and an invaluable choice that forces PWIs to up their games.”
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