Closing the Gap at North Carolina’s Historically Black Universities

Earlier this month, the Triangle Business Journal revealed that graduates from North Carolina’s Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) are lagging their peers in terms of median salary after graduation. As the state bolsters its efforts to attract more students to its public HBCUs, it’s especially important to discover the cause of such disparities and determine how to close the gap.

The Triangle Business Journal’s findings are a good start. Using data from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard tool, TBJ analyzed the median earnings of students who received federal financial aid ten years after starting their education at each of the ten HBCUs in the state. They discovered that students who attended North Carolina’s public and private HBCUs earn $4,055 less than the national median, and significantly less than most students who attended predominantly white UNC system schools.

Data from NC Tower, a website using government data to track the employment outcomes of public college and university graduates, mostly confirm TBJ’s findings. These data, which come only from students who have graduated by the time of data collection and are employed in North Carolina, show that five years after graduation, most HBCU graduates earn less than those who attended many of the predominantly white institutions (PWI) in the state.

But the disparity between HBCUs and PWIs isn’t cut and dried. To be sure, graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill earn, on average, $20,000 more than graduates of Elizabeth City State University five years after graduation. But these two extreme cases tell only part of the story. Graduates of UNC School of the Arts and UNC Greensboro, both PWIs, earn significantly less than the median for all UNC schools ($33,750). And students at NC A&T, a land-grant HBCU in Greensboro, falls nearly at the median. The income of graduates who stay in North Carolina after leaving school tells an even more complicated story, with graduates of UNC School of the Arts at the bottom and Winston Salem State University at the top. (It is unclear why data from NC Tower and the College Scorecard are so dissimilar for WSSU graduates.)

Looking more closely at NC Tower’s data reveals one possible reason for the difference in salaries: industry of employment. Few students from schools with below-average earnings work in high-skill industries such as natural resources and mining; trade, transportation, and utilities; manufacturing; information; and finance. These industries account for many of the high-paying jobs landed by graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State. At Elizabeth City State University, by contrast, many graduates are concentrated in public administration, education, and retail.

The high earnings variation between industries, and, by extension, college majors, is well documented. Data from the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution, shows that “for the median bachelor’s graduate, cumulative lifetime earnings across majors range from just under $800,000 to just over $2 million.” It’s telling that NC A&T, whose graduates boast the highest earnings among UNC system HBCUs, has the highest proportion of STEM majors.

But students’ choice of majors across universities does not explain all the variance between salaries. UNC Pembroke graduates working in retail make nearly $7,000 less annually than ECU graduates working in the same industry. It is unlikely that their field of study is to blame.

Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, posited in a comment in the Triangle Business Journal that disparities in earnings could be explained by racism on the part of employers—who view HBCUs as inferior institutions.

An alternative explanation is that employers are responding to a real difference in graduates’ skills—and hiring the ones who are able to solve problems, think critically, and adapt to their role in the workforce. On all of these measures, HBCUs, which often have low admission standards, perform poorly. (Predominantly white institutions with low admissions standards also perform poorly.)

In an expose published earlier this summer, the Wall Street Journal described college students’ learning outcomes as “discouraging” across the board. But results were particularly concerning at HBCUs. The article examined students’ performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), a test of critical thinking skills that was administered at 200 universities nationwide.

“At more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table,” WSJ reported.

These are precisely the skills that employers want. A 2016 report of workforce skills preparedness by Payscale revealed there exists a significant skills gap between what employers want and the skills new college graduates possess. Sixty percent of managers identified critical thinking and problem-solving as the skills that most recent graduates lack.

Only four UNC schools were included in the report. But this snapshot of learning in the UNC system is telling. At East Carolina and Western Carolina, very few seniors left school with “below basic” skills. At Fayetteville State and UNC Pembroke (a minority-serving institution though not technically an HBCU), more than a quarter of seniors were considered “below basic” in their abilities to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information.

Further data reported by schools to the Voluntary System of Accountability confirms the trend. Seniors at Appalachian State, East Carolina, and Western Carolina outperformed seniors at Fayetteville State, UNC Pembroke, and Winston-Salem State University on every almost measure. Among the schools who participated (see below), the scores of WSSU students came closest to those of students at predominantly white institutions.

Serious reforms are needed in order for graduates of HBCUs to compete with their peers from predominantly white institutions. In North Carolina, NC A&T is a model. It boasts higher admissions standards than other HBCUs in the state and a large number of students who major in in-demand fields such as nursing and engineering.

Reform starts with increasing minimum admissions standards. This will ensure that students arrive on campus prepared to learn at a college level. North Carolina Central University, Elizabeth City State University, and Fayetteville State University—three schools that lowered their standards for SAT scores to 750 combined math and critical reading—should return to 800 as the minimum score they will accept.

Once students are on campus, faculty and administrators should encourage them to take more challenging and in-demand majors. Course content in all courses and majors should be geared towards increasing problem-solving, critical thinking, and writing skills. A strong general education program, including strict requirements for math and composition, can help students learn the habits of mind that will prepare them for the workplace.

Competition in the modern workforce is fierce. North Carolina’s HBCUs must improve their performance in order to adequately prepare graduates for the future.