The news of St. Paul’s closing came around the same time that a board member at Howard University, another historically black institution, wrote a much-discussed public letter warning about the school’s dire financial straits. The school was hemorrhaging money, the trustee said. Its student body was shrinking. “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now,” she wrote.
These events come amidst a flurry of questions about the educational opportunities available to black students. Just this week, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in a major case on affirmative action in higher education, asking a lower court to reconsider the legality of the University of Texas’s admissions policies.
For decades, folks have been asking: is affirmative action still necessary? And they ask the same questions of HBCUs: have black colleges outlived their usefulness?
If you look at the numbers, they can be kind of jarring: aside from more well-known schools like Spelman and Howard, most HBCUs have six-year graduation rates below 50 percent. According to the Journals of Blacks in Higher Education, 24 black colleges saw only a third of their graduates earn a bachelor’s degree.
But Gasman said that so much of this is a function of demographics. [What HBCUs] have at their core is a dedication to low-income students,” she said. “That makes it harder to have higher graduation rates” — HBCUs students face financial pressures outside of college and so they have narrower margins of error. “If you’re doing that kind of work, you’re dealing with low-income students, you’re tuition-driven, your alumni are not making enormous salaries and you’re dealing with racism, it’s a difficult situation.”
But as low as those graduation rates may be, the numbers at many HBCUS are still higher than the national average for black graduations. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education recentl ytook a look at 41 institutions, and found that more than half those HBCUS saw their graduation numbers tick up over the last 15 years, and 10 of those schools saw increases in the double-digits.
— Gene Demby, “Are HBCUs in Trouble? An Evergreen Question” via NPR Code Switch, June 26, 2013