Good News on Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Many of America’s most famous black leaders graduated from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. In their day, most of the small percentage of black students who went to college enrolled in an HBCU, but now only 10 percent do.

Some of those schools are struggling to survive. Fisk University in Nashville, for example, is considering selling its art collection to raise desperately needed funds. The great problem facing many HBCUs these days is finding ways to appeal to students who can pay. Few African-American students from affluent families enroll in them. And although HBCUs will gladly enroll non-black students, their overtures have met with little success.

Are HBCUs just an anachronism, then? At a time when the cry is heard almost everywhere in higher education that “diversity” is necessary and beneficial, what good can be said about colleges and universities where racial homogeneity is a distinguishing feature?

In fact, there is a good case to be made for HBCUs. It’s arguable that many black students would be better off at an HBCU than at other public or private schools. Here’s why.

Although only 10 percent of black students attend HBCUs, about 40 percent of the black students who earn degrees in the physical sciences and math get them at HBCUs. Those are fields where employment prospects are especially bright.

Why are African-American students so much more likely to pursue these rigorous fields of study at an HBCU?

Writing about this in The Wall Street Journal recently, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom offered this explanation: “The HBCUs have an advantage over even the selective traditionally white colleges: There is no mismatch between black student qualifications and the academic demands of the schools…. And once they enroll at an HBCU, they can feel free to major in more difficult subjects, knowing that they will not be unprepared for the coursework.”

The “mismatch problem” has mostly been ignored by advocates of “affirmative action,” who refuse to acknowledge that affirmative action has any downside at all. Those scholars who have considered the flaws, Thomas Sowell for example, have attempted to get people to see the educational problems involved when a school admits a group of students who are significantly less academically able than most of the student body. The “preferred” students often struggle in school and gravitate toward the easiest courses. The experience of students at HBCUs is the opposite side of that coin – when they aren’t overmatched by students with stronger academic preparation, students are more likely to pursue studies in rigorous and demanding majors. And in a market economy, people succeed on the basis of their contributions, not their credentials. The discipline required to pursue a degree in a demanding field is apt to do more for a student (of any race) than is majoring in one of the “soft” disciplines, which are known for their low expectations.

One piece of evidence that black students are better off at HBCUs than at traditionally white schools where they are not well matched academically is the study by Stephen Cole and Elinor Barber Increasing Faculty Diversity: The Occupational Choices of High-Achieving Minority Students (Harvard University Press, 2003). The authors concluded that affirmative action contributes to the problem of a low percentage of black professors because it steers them into schools where they perform relatively poorly.

Cole and Barber found that among black students with scores of 1300 or higher on the SAT, only 28 percent of those who attended Ivy League schools had grade point averages in the A range, whereas 55 percent of those who attended HBCUs did. This matters because high grades are just about obligatory for admission into good grad schools. African-American students who expressed interest in going into college teaching were much more likely to carry through with it if they attended an HBCU (or other less selective institution) rather than an elite school.

Finally, HBCUs often have another thing going for them, namely a solid general education curriculum. Back in 2003, I surveyed general education requirements at the schools in the University of North Carolina system. I found the strongest general education requirements at some of the UNC system’s smallest and least well-funded institutions, historically black schools like North Carolina Central University and Elizabeth City State. Conversely, the weakest general education programs were at the highly funded flagship schools.

The reason is that the small HBCUs don’t have the resources to offer a vast smorgasbord of courses, as the flagships can. Therefore, they concentrate on the sorts of required courses that used to be the pillars of a college education, such as American history, literature, and government, lab sciences, and mathematics. Paradoxical as it may seem, financially poorer schools (including but not limited to HBCUs) may serve their students better by making them concentrate on a more coherent and intellectually sound course of study.

As the Thernstroms wrote about HBCUs, “their academic conservatism may be the secret to their success.”

One struggling HBCU, Wiley College in Texas, has just had the good fortune to be the setting for a movie starring Denzel Washington. Wiley officials are hoping that the publicity will send more students to their small school. The movie is about Wiley’s champion debate team back in 1935. The success of this team provides additional proof that excellence requires neither diversity nor huge expenditures.

George C. Leef is the vice president for research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.