By Dr. Walter Kimbrough, President of Dillard University
By Dr. Walter Kimbrough, President of Dillard University
Medgar Evers College, an overwhelmingly black branch of the City University of New York, sits atop a hill in central Brooklyn. It is across the street from the mustard-colored high-rises of the Ebbets Field Apartments, named for the long-gone baseball field where the Brooklyn Dodgers played until 1957, and where Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947. Medgar Evers is a cluster of newish glass-and-brick buildings that radiate competence and promise. The college’s crest shows the scales of justice, a lamp and a pair of hands struggling against shackles.
Medgar Evers is not one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) discussed by journalist Ron Stodghill in his new book Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture. Its plight, however, aligns almost perfectly with the ailments Stodghill diagnoses at those paragons of black scholarship in the South and the Midwest, where the vast majority of HBCUs are located. Medgar Evers may not be the equal of Howard University, but if Stodghill is right, both schools are heading down the same perilous path, taking black aspirations with them.
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As is often the case at HBCUs, many students at Medgar Evers are the first in their families to attend college. Few Evers students, however, graduate: According to U.S. News & World Report, its four-year graduation rate is only 4 percent, about five times less than the average at non-flagship American public institutions (some of this may be because of the school’s open admissions policy). Overall, no HBCU had a graduation rate higher than 70 percent as of last year, with Spelman (69 percent) and Howard (65 percent) coming closest. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which compiled the statistics, found that the bottom half of HBCUs had a graduation rate of no higher than 34 percent. This may be in line with public flagship universities (36 percent), but below the Northeastern colleges whose equals the HBCUs have long aspired to be. Yes, the HBCUs graduated the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison and Oprah Winfrey, but whom are they graduating today?
Not only are fewer students graduating HBCUs, many fewer are choosing to attend them. HBCUs made much more sense in 1925 than 2015, when a top-notch black student may find herself choosing between, say, Spelman, Oberlin and Cornell. What can Spelman offer her that the predominantly white institutions can’t? As recently as four decades ago, Stodghill writes, some 80 percent of black students attended an HBCU; today, that figure is a mere 9 percent.
Colleges without students do as well as airlines without passengers, and as black students snub HBCUs, HBCUs face the first true existential crisis in their collective history. St. Paul’s College, in Lawrenceville, Virginia, has closed; Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, has sold off half its stake in an art collection left to it by Georgia O’Keeffe. Morris Brown College, in Atlanta, was stripped of its accreditation in 2002 and was limping along with only 35 students last year.
HBCU administrators often take the blame, though the ship rarely goes down from captain error alone. At Medgar Evers, President William L. Pollard was ousted two years ago, accused, as the The New York Times put it, of acting “without an appreciation for the institution’s history.” Among his early transgressions was “switching the campus automated teller machines from the black-run Carver Federal Savings Bank to Citibank,” according to a Times report on his tumultuous first year. His appeals to long-term planning and cost-cutting were met with suspicion from those who loved the place with all its imperfections. “The administration is out of character with anything we need,” one professor complained.
That same year, Howard President Sidney A. Ribeau was forced to resign for strikingly similar reasons. The Washington Post noted that his departure came in an autumn of developments that “many Howard boosters found dispiriting: a drop for the university in a major national ranking and a downgrade in its credit rating. It also came a year after enrollment at the university suddenly fell 5 percent.” He was accused of enriching himself and top administrators while starving the university. Stodghill capably chronicles the school’s troubles, from the missing Academy Award of Hattie McDaniel to the recent travails of the university’s hospital, a fabled institution that once treated freed slaves but whose $37 million annual losses were responsible for a downgrading of Howard’s credit rating in 2014.
Most Americans are only marginally concerned with the state of higher education, but Stodghill argues that the decline of the HBCU is a national crisis, not just a black one, and that we should all care. “It is hard to imagine a single greater threat to the future of African-Americans than the demise of its higher education system,” he writes. Stodghill, who is African-American and teaches at an HBCU in North Carolina, isn’t downplaying the issues of discriminatory policing and excessively punitive criminal justice that, others would argue, are far more threatening to the prospects of black America. He argues, instead, that HBCUs are the “main artery connecting to the heart of black America.” Sever it, and the race cannot survive.
The nation’s first college for African-Americans began in 1837 as the Institute for Colored Youth (today, Cheney University), about 20 miles west of Philadelphia. Most HBCUs, though, were founded during Reconstruction “to educate some half-million newly freed slaves,” Stodghill writes. Howard University was founded in 1867 and has long been sustained by a congressional appropriation, now totaling $223 million per year. All-men’s Morehouse College was founded that same year, in Atlanta, while all-women’s Spelman College was founded in 1881 next door. Together, the three formed a sort of mini Ivy League for black students who wouldn’t be allowed into those great patrician colleges of the Northeast. The Harvard Man had an equal in the Morehouse Man.
The most famous HBCU, though, may be a fictional one. In 1987, A Different World premiered on NBC, introducing the nation to Hillman College, attended by Cosby Show scion Denise Huxtable. Stodghill argues that the show “did more to attract black college kids to black campuses than those ‘A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste’ public service announcements ever could.” While acknowledging the recent grave accusations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby, he describes the embattled actor as one of the nation’s most vociferous (if sometimes hectoring) proponents of black intellectualism. The $20 million gift Cosby and his wife made to Spelman in 1988 remains an act of unrivaled generosity in the HBCU world.
“If we can tithe for our churches, we can tithe for our schools,” Spelman’s president at the time said of the gift. But that hasn’t happened. The Cosbys’ largesse aside, HBCUs don’t attract large philanthropic gifts. This may be because many of those who attend HBCU come from less wealthy households, but that doesn’t explain it all: Some psychological hesitation is obviously at work. When the musician and entrepreneur Dr. Dre donated $35 million to the University of Southern California in 2013, many saw it as a betrayal of his people. “I can’t help but wish that Dre’s wealth, generated as it was by his largely black hip-hop fans, was coming back to support that community,” lamented the president of Dillard University in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.
The head of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund quips to Stodghill that “our funding comes from Republican rich white guys and their wives,” an apparent reference to the $25 million gift from the Koch brothers to the United Negro College Fund in the summer of 2014. This clearly dismays Stodghill, who calculates that “HBCUs boast 2 million living alumni; if 2 million graduates pledged even a hundred dollars a year, HBCUs could build endowments all over the country. But for some reason, blacks refuse to fund our own schools.”
The federal government hasn’t made life for HBCUs easier, adding stricter credit rating requirements to the crucial Parent PLUS loan program in 2011 while also reducing by six semesters the length of Pell Grants, on which close to 90 percent of HBCU students are estimated to rely. If neither the private nor the public sector will rescue the HBCUs, who will?
One administrator tells Stodghill that “the HBCU president has the toughest job in higher ed. We’ve got the same expectations, but not even near the resources of the people you’re competing with.” Brown, the poorest of the Ivies, has an endowment of $3.2 billion; Howard, the wealthiest of the HBCUs, has an endowment one-fifth of that, $586.1 million.
The intellectual value of an HBCU education is coming into question too. The old “teacher and preacher” model of instruction, which recalls an antiquated black culture, is out of sync with the demands of the 21st century. Stodghill talks to a Morehouse professor who laments that “most HBCUs curriculums today do not emphasize discussion and debate.” The professor says he has his students approach classroom work “like an Ivy League school,” the implication being that many of his peers do not.
Stodghill, who’s never particularly optimistic in his book, points to an estimate that there will be only 35 HBCUs in 2035, down from 104 today (some put the number at 106). Of those, Stodghill writes, only 15 will be “actually thriving.” The rest will continue to shrink, consolidate or close, disappearing eventually from the landscape of American higher education, taking a vital part of our shared national history with them.
Perhaps the HBCUs’ decline is a sign that our society truly is becoming post-racial. Note that neither America’s first African-American president nor the first lady have ties to an HBCU: President Obama went to Columbia, his wife, Michelle, went to Princeton. In fact, many of the nation’s most prominent African-Americans also have ties to the Ivy League: Shonda Rhimes (Dartmouth), Loretta Lynch (Harvard), John Legend (Pennsylvania), Neil deGrasse Tyson (Harvard), Eric Holder (Columbia).
“One of the byproducts of racial segregation,” Stodghill writes, “was that black colleges enjoyed a critical mass of really smart students and really bright teachers whose options were also limited.” To romanticize segregation is an odd position, but Stodghill isn’t the first to wax nostalgic for a fiercely ambitious black cultural unity in the face of a prevalent white hatred.
Today, that kind of unity isn’t necessary and, in fact, may be seen a sign of weakness or parochialism. Like the Lower East Side Jews of earlier generations who spurned “the Harvard of the Proletariat” that was the City College of New York for the actual thing in Cambridge, Ivy-bound blacks like those aforementioned wanted to—and did—prove themselves in the highest echelons of the white establishment.
Yet an argument for HBCUs remains. According to the UNCF, black colleges produce 70 percent of all black dentists and doctors, 50 percent of black engineers and public school teachers, and 35 percent of black lawyers. And while HBCUs account for only 3 percent of the nation’s colleges, they account for about 20 percent of the degrees awarded to African-Americans.
There is a less quantifiable argument too. When, several months ago, video emerged of fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant, it offered a stinging reminder that just because black students are allowed into predominantly white institutions, they are not always welcome in them. Stodghill writes of one black corporate lawyer who was raised in relative privilege in the 1980s and went to the University of Michigan, only to transfer to Florida A&M University, an HBCU in Tallahassee. When asked later what it was like to attend FAMU, he answered, “Probably what it feels like to be a white dude at the University of Michigan.”
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Raise.me developed a program that allows high school students to start banking college scholarship money.
What’s the catch?
The money is tied to students’ individual achievements. The better they do in school, the more engaged they are with their communities, the more money they earn from Raise.me’s college partners.
There are 76 colleges on Raise.me’s platform, including Penn State, UMass and Tulane. Raise.me cofounder Preston Silverman hopes to increase that to 100 colleges by the end of the year.
As long as students meet the college’s GPA requirements, they can start earning money from as many as they choose — between $500 to $1,000 per achievement. Students don’t get the money until they are accepted to one of the colleges.
Abby Saxastar raised $80,000 on Raise.me, which will fully cover her tuition at Stetson University, a private college in central Florida.
“I’ve always been very successful in school and I’ve also done a lot of volunteer work,” said Saxastar. “But I still had to figure out how to pay for college.”
Saxastar learned about the program a few months before she graduated high school in June, but the program allows students to retroactively include information. So even as a senior, Saxastar could log her grades and activities for the past four years.
“My family is digging through some debt and taking out loans for my other expenses,” she said. “So getting this scholarship has been amazing.”
Saxastar is one of 60,000 students from 5,000 high schools who have signed up with Raise.me since it launched in August 2014. The startup has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Facebook (FB, Tech30).
Colleges committed a total of $1 billion in scholarships in the first year, but Silverman said there isn’t data on how much of this was actually paid out to students. The goal is to make scholarships available to students who may not otherwise pursue them.
“Most scholarships today are awarded at the very end of high school. It’s too late to influence a student’s college search and application process,” he said.
Silverman said colleges are on board because it helps them reach students much earlier in the selection process.
Beatriz Zayas is head counselor at the Southwest High School in El Centro, California, a city on the border with Mexico and Arizona. It’s a predominantly rural area, and 90% of the 2,100 students are Hispanic.
“A high percentage are from low-income families, but we’re hoping they will become first-generation college students,” said Zayas.
Raise.me could become a critical part of that. There are 60 students at Southwest currently enrolled in the program. Zayas said they opted to focus on a small International Baccalaureate class first, in order to provide the necessary support.
“It’s putting good colleges on the radar of families who wouldn’t have known about them otherwise,” she said.
Although Raise.me doesn’t target a specific demographic, Silverman said 49% of students on the platform are from low-income families.
A few colleges, including Florida International University, are even offering scholarships specifically to these students.
The university plans to partner with Raise.me this year to target low-income Florida high schools.
“With many first-generation families, their socioeconomic barriers prevent them from taking advantage of a lot of things,” said Luisa Havens, vice president of enrollment services with Florida International University. “Raise.me is perfect way to give them access to opportunity.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of colleges currently using Raise.me’s platform. There are 76, not 26.
CNNMoney (New York) September 18, 2015: 1:52 PM ET
By: Donovan X. Ramsey – The National Journal – September 10, 2015 Reblogged by http://www.civilrightsagenda.com
COURTESY MOREHOUSE COLLEGE OFFICE OF COMMUNICATIONS (Population 2043: Each month, Next America visits a different community to explore how it is responding to changing demography.)
In the midst of a terse national conversation about police violence against Black Americans came news that Morehouse College, my alma mater and the nation’s only all-male historically Black college, welcomed one of its largest freshman classes.
Morehouse is not alone in seeing a surge in admissions in the past year. EDU Inc., which administers Common Black College, an online tool used to apply to 42 of the more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities with a single form, processed 10 percent more applications for the 2015-2016 school year than last year. President Robert Mason says that after a year of news of police killings of young Black Americans, Black students—Black males in particular—are looking for safe spaces.
Newsweek has run two pieces in the past few weeks declaring “Black Colleges Matter.” Aside from debating the academic value of HBCUs and documenting their traditions, which The New York Times did recently, it’s important that these schools are also acknowledged for the unique safety and security they offer young Black people.
“I think it can reasonably be concluded that safety factors into the decision-making process when students are deciding what college to attend,” Mason said. “I would contend that the heightened sense of fear concerning the safety of Black males has given impetus to parents now employing the same kind of logic that is used to determine if a college and the surrounding area is safe enough to allow their daughters to attend. Before the increased media coverage of violence against Black males and the national dialogue that has ensued, I don’t think safety was as much of a concern for black males when deciding what college to attend.”
In February, actress Taraji P. Henson made headlines when she told Uptown Magazine that she was transferring her son to her alma mater after he’d been racially profiled at the University of Southern California.
“So guess where he’s going? Howard University,” she told Uptown. “I’m not paying $50K so I can’t sleep at night wondering is this the night my son is getting racially profiled on campus.”
Following Henson’s revelation, Essence conducted a poll asking parents if they prefer that their children attend an HBCU. Nearly 80 percent said “yes.”
In his first address to the class of 2019, Morehouse President John S. Wilson spoke of the challenges and dangers black men face. “According to The New York Times, there are 1.5 million missing black men in this country,” he pointed out. “When you were in ninth grade, there were 320,000 black boys with you, nationally. Roughly only 160,000 graduated from high school. And of those, only about 50,000 applied to a four-year college.”
Drummers from Howard University’s Marching Band perform during the National Urban League’s ‘Drum Majors for Justice Future Leaders Celebration’ commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington at Freedom Plaza. SAUL
One of the most moving moments during their orientation week at Morehouse is the Parent Parting Ceremony in which incoming freshmen, their parents, alumni and Morehouse officials assemble in the chapel. Parents are asked to release their sons into the hands of “Mother Morehouse.” The community makes a pledge to care for the new students, and parents are instructed to depart immediately after. Many families shed tears during the ritual.
Nate Ervin, 18, entered Morehouse this fall to study political science. He applied to eight schools, four HBCUs and four predominantly white institutions. He was accepted to all of them but says he chose to attend Morehouse because of its focus on uplifting black men.
ROBERT MASON, EDU INC. PRESIDENT
“Behind these gates, I feel so safe. I really do,” says Ervin. “I feel like black people in America have an understanding between each other and there’s relative safety among the group.”
Danielle Brogdon, 18, is studying media, film and journalism at Howard with a minor in African-American studies. She says she thought about studying at New York University or Northwestern, but was attracted to Howard for its network of alumni in media but for its protections.
“I have a friend in school in Nashville and she was telling me how she’s worried,” says Brogdon. “Nashville is not the blackest community and it’s in the South. She feels like she has to be extra aware of who’s around her and how she interacts. She’s worried about things like how her school would protect her if she was in an altercation.”
In a society that desperately wants to be post-racial, many ask if HBCUs are still relevant. It’s this sentiment that perhaps has allowed for a mass divestment from HBCUs in the 21st century. In fact, despite the continued and very evident need for HBCUs in educating black students, the federal government has been slowly chipping away at funding in recent years.
Indeed, I have never felt more secure as a black man than I did as a student on Morehouse’s campus.
As the nation’s only institution of higher education founded to serve us, it is a rare space where black men are not vulnerable because of their blackness. On the contrary, at Morehouse and other HBCUs, black men and women are protected – by a campus police force no less. On campus – and for the first time in my life – I was free to run full speed without causing alarm. I raised my voice in public, asserted myself without inciting panic. My blackness did not render me suspicious or scary. I could inhabit every square inch of my six-foot, 200-pound body without risking my life.
HBCUs are rare American institutions in that they are maintained for the affirmation, advancement and protection of black life. In a society in which young black people, men and women, have their lives cut short every day by incarceration and violence – state or otherwise – the schools are sanctuaries from a world at war with black bodies.
In his bestselling book, Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his experience at his HBCU alma mater in such terms. Addressing his teenage son, Coates writes, “My only Mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University. I have tried to explain this to you many times. You say you hear me, that you understand, but I am not sure that the force of my Mecca—The Mecca—can be translated into your new eclectic tongue. I am not even sure that it should be… And still, I maintain that even for a cosmopolitan boy like you, there is something to be found there — a base, even in these modern times, a port in the American storm.”
In a society in which young black people, men and women, have their lives cut short every day by incarceration and violence – state or otherwise – the schools are sanctuaries from a world at war with black bodies.
Donovan X. Ramsey, a multimedia journalist, is currently a Demos Emerging Voices Fellow.
HBCUs, with about an eighth of the average endowment of other institutions and half receiving no federal funding, operate primarily on revenue from tuition. Those students, however, rely heavily on federal loan and grant programs to afford college, with more than seven out of every 10 HBCU students receiving Pell grants. An equal share takes out federal loans—about 20 percent higher than the national average. This means that HBCUs are deeply impacted by changes in federal financial aid policy.
In 2011, the Department of Education reduced the total number of semesters for which students could receive Pell grants from 18 to 12 semesters. The cut was felt deeply at HBCUs where students, on average, take longer to graduate. The same year, the DOE also tightened eligibility for Parent PLUS loans, a form of aid used in great number by HBCU students and families to finance their education. These sudden, simultaneous changes created a crisis on HBCU campuses around the country. According to analysis by the United Negro College Fund, an estimated 28,000 HBCU students were denied loans in 2012, resulting in a collective loss of about $155 million in tuition revenue—reducing institutional budgets by 35 percent.
In 2010, the year before the cuts, HBCUs experienced their highest levels of enrollment in the nearly 40 years the Department of Education has been keeping track. In 2010, 265,908 students were enrolled at HBCUs across the country. That number has declined steadily every school year since.
Last month, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced a proposal to perhaps undo some of that damage by creating a dedicated $25 billion fund to support to private nonprofit schools that serve low-income students, of which private HBCUs are an example.
To be sure, HBCUs are not perfect institutions and certainly are not sacrosanct because they serve a beleaguered population.
They’re worth protecting and supporting, however, because they punch above their weight when it comes to graduating low-income students and students of color. The more than 100 HBCUs around the country enroll nearly 10 percent of of black undergraduates but award 16 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned by black Americans, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In addition, HBCUs produce 70 percent of all black dentists and doctors, 50 percent of black engineers and public school teachers, and 35 percent of black lawyers, according to stats from the UNCF.
Marcellis Wilburn, 18, says he chose Howard because he wanted to pursue a career in criminal justice. Thurgood Marshall’s alma mater, he thought, would be a smart place to begin the road to becoming a prosecutor then judge.
“I’ve always been interested in going to Howard because of its law school,” says Wilburn.
He says that monitoring high-profile incidents of police brutality over the past year informed his view of the criminal justice system and made him worry more about his safety in interacting with police officers.
“A typical traffic stop could be a life or death situation, because police are getting out of hand with African-American men and women,” says Wilburn. “I feel safer on Howard’s campus than I probably would on another campus because, here at Howard, our police officers and most of the officer who attend to certain situations are African American. I feel more comfortable.”
In a moment when the nation is finally focusing attention to the issue of police violence against black Americans, black colleges are being recognized for the relative safety they afford their students, ensuring that HBCUs will remain relevant as unique spaces for intellectual, psychological and physical freedom.
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