The black college is dying. In my opinion, the preference for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) seems to be waning. HBCUs were once the home of our educational investments, but are now likened to the land of Reconstruction Era relics. In contrast to my viewpoint, in the Black Enterprise article The HBCU Debate: Are Black Colleges & Universities Still Needed?, the author states that “HBCUs represent about 3 percent of colleges in the U.S. but enroll 12 percent of all Black college students and produce 23 percent of all Black college graduates.”
I can understand that many may disagree with my opinion, but personally, it is less of a concern that I hear about stories of exceptionalism, as presented in some of the studies I’ve read. I am more concerned about the areas of failure contributing to the slow demise of HBCUs such as relying on a few successful graduates to prove the efficacy of HBCUs, the lack of alumni support, or the disappointing and declining retention rates.
According to a report in the Journal of Blacks at Higher Education, “At nearly half the HBCUs in our survey, the Black student graduation rate is 33 percent or lower.” As a proud graduate of an HBCU (Tougaloo College), these statistics concern me. If alumni do not start caring more about their alma mater, if HBCUs do not start caring more about their faculty, and if students do not start caring more about the culture of their campuses, HBCUs may become nothing more than post-Civil War antiques. Things need to change — now.
The HBCU retention rate is low. This is caused by a myriad of reasons, but largely because the students it retains are not actively involved in the affairs of their alma mater. We are not involved financially or as attentively as we need to be. It is no secret that African American history is filled with countless examples of black people who benefited from a community they never supported in return. Therefore, if the various statistics are correct, and HBCUs are mostly responsible for the growth of black doctors, lawyers, engineers and PhDs, then why is that not reflected in the donations? Either the statistics are incorrect or graduates are not returning the favors. Alumni need to show support financially and not just by attending homecoming events, sporting college apparel in representation of their alma mater, and engaging in unnecessary arguments with graduates of rival institutions. Donations, however, are not the only way to show support. HBCU graduates can join alumni associations, help host college fairs, join recruitment efforts and most importantly, sponsor a student.
The low retention rates and overall lack of funding contributes to the mistreatment of HBCU faculty. HBCUs will remain in their current state they fail to change the way members of the faculty are treated. Most of the faculty members are extremely overworked. Long office hours, an extensive course load, unappreciative students and quasi sabbaticals are a lot harder to handle when the school does not always have the funds to confer tenure. Many times I have seen distress on the faces of my professors as they spent countless hours grading half decent papers or returning from last minute faculty meetings. I am aware, of course, that this is not exclusive to HBCUs.
The assertion that students and professors at HBCUs are like family members and not just numbers or statistics comes into question when professors are not valued for the work that they do. Improved treatment of instructors would include allocating lighter coarse loads, providing the option for more sabbaticals and creating a better support system for their development as educators.
Finally, I believe the HBCU is in its current state because the cultures of the campuses are not conducive for student retention. The things that once made HBCUs special are the same things that are causing them to suffer. HBCUs are known for boisterous homecomings, marching bands and Greek life, but not as much for academic rigor, leadership training or character development. I am not implying that the latter is not present, but I am stating that the latter is not expected as much as the former. Historically, homecomings served as a time to boast about how our alma mater helped us accomplish our goals, now they are the only times that alumni donate money. Historically, marching bands and Greek letter organizations were inspirations for grade improvement and character enhancement, but are now pursued at the expense of those things. We have to — no we must — switch the priorities on our campuses to other aspects of campus life. I am not implying we should rid ourselves of Greek letter organizations and marching bands, but suggesting we cease privileging them to the extent that we currently do. Let us start focusing on the values once underpinning homecomings, marching bands and Greek life: social solidarity and enhancement.
HBCUs were once places where the black community protected its raisins from the sun, but it now appears to be a locale where grapes are no longer planted. Since President Obama signed an executive order to allocate $228 million in grants to 97 HBCUs, much discussion has taken place regarding the relevance of and need for HBCUs. Some exaggerate its need, while most disregard its importance. I believe HBCUs are vital to American life, but like Dr. Eddie Glaude said about the Black Church, this death “occasions an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black.” This death is an opportunity for HBCUs to (re)define what it means to be an institution in the 21st century that addresses the beautiful and the ugly in the age of Obama, the New Jim Crow, issues of poverty, and so forth. This is a sad time, but it is also a time to change, to care, and to improve so that HBCUs can continue the legacy of creating some of the best leaders the world has ever seen.
Do you agree that “the black college is dead”?