I was riveted by the speech from the aptly named Winsome Sears in Virginia on Tuesday night. She spoke words that made my heart cheer. I appreciated her in-your-face approach to the racial issue, and the way she pointed out the absurdity of many of my fellow black Americans’ wailing and chest beating about racism as if we are still living in 1963. I applauded her emphasis on restoring quality education. I loved her finishing touch of giving ultimate honor to her Savior and Creator for the historic victory she achieved. I enjoyed all of it, except for one point she made that stopped me short. This too, was an educational point, but one that I have wrestled with for quite some time.
She committed, and I believe Virginia’s Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin has as well, to “fully funding our HBCUs”. That bit left me internally squeamish, and I’ve spent a couple of days now organizing my thoughts into what I hope is an articulate and coherent argument for why we should tread lightly on this particular issue. I formulated a hypothesis based on my own observations, which I will share first. I spent a little time parsing the data to determine whether my suspicions are based in fact or whether I am, to borrow from the illustriously, redundantly verbose Michael Eric Dyson, simply a victim of subconsciously internalized white supremacy. Here’s my take on why HBCUs are so woefully underfunded that Republican former president Donald Trump had to bail them out and Republican governor-elect Glenn Youngkin has committed even more funds to keep Virginia’s HBCUs afloat.
To say that I am ambivalent about HBCUs is an understatement. I would argue that fully 80% of them are subpar. Moreover, I suspect that 100% are hotbeds of divisiveness and perpetuation of the CRT narrative, even if they don’t actually call it that. It is not a philosophy that serves the future prospects of the students who attend those universities.
I wish I could care more about them even for historical purposes. I do have a personal interest in the legacy of those who came before me. Still, I wonder if HBCUs don’t in aggregate, do more harm than good. I also question why their graduates, like those of other universities, don’t provide enough in donations for them to have generous endowments. If there is any collection of colleges whose coffers should be perpetually replenished by the students they have propelled into lives of professional prosperity and social richness, I’d think it would be HBCUs. I wonder why that isn’t the case.
Actually, I don’t wonder why, because I have a strong suspicion that I know exactly what is going on there. I believe the issue is that a significant percentage of their freshman enrollees never graduate. Of those that do, few graduate with the education and skills in demand to earn the level of income and status to enable them to generously pour into the coffers of their alma mater. In other words, most HBCUs are no longer worth what they once were, which is why they flounder.
Granted, this hypothesis is almost solely based on my personal observations of students I have watched enter the revolving doors of several HBCUs. Some of these have been small colleges and others have been the more celebrated colleges such as Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, and Hampton. Regardless of the school’s word of mouth, I have seen very little evidence that debunks my hypothesis. So I decided to click around a bit. There is plenty of data to be found, but this 2013 article from The Philadelphia Tribune does a thorough enough job for our purposes here. An excerpt:
When segregation was legal, Black colleges were responsible for almost all Black collegians. Today, nearly 90 percent of Black students spurn historically Black colleges.
“Even the best Black colleges and universities do not approach the standards of quality of respectable institutions,” wrote economist Thomas Sowell. “None has a department ranking among the leading graduate departments in any of the 29 fields surveyed by the American Council of Education. None ranks among the ‘selective’ institutions with regard to student admissions. None has a student body whose College Board scores are within 100 points of any school in the Ivy League.”
Sowell wrote in an academic journal in 1974, yet with few exceptions the description remains accurate. These days the better Black schools—Howard, Spelman, Morehouse – are rated “selective” in the U.S. News rankings, but their average SAT scores still lag behind those at decent state schools like the University of Texas at Austin, and lag far behind Ivy League schools.
In 2006, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the six-year graduation rate at HBCUs was 37 percent. That’s 20 percentage points below the national average and eight percentage points below the average of Black students at other colleges. A recent Washington Monthly magazine survey of colleges with the worst graduation rates featured Black schools in first and second place, and in eight of the top 24 spots.
So, where does that leave us on the HBCU issue? Should they go extinct? Perhaps, but that is not my desire. My desire would be for the schools to step it up, raise standards to attract the top students who spurn them, and then produce an education that is worth something on the open market so that their graduates can increase their endowments.
I recognize that all colleges receive some government fundings, and I’ll leave my thoughts on that out of this for the present moment. My overarching view of education is that the best way to improve it, is through increased competition. It is not coincidence that HBCUs perform as dismally as public education writ large.
I wish Winsome Sears the best, and I hope she makes waves for the foreseeable future, but those Virginia HBCU dollars need to be tied to measurable results.