HBCUs lead at propelling graduates into middle class

While more than two-thirds of the students enrolled in the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States are Pell Grant eligible – the federal grant for the poorest of America’s higher education students – these schools are more than two times more successful in propelling their graduates into the middle class than are American universities as a whole, says a report from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) released last week.

The study also shows that while the HBCUs enrol only 10% of black college and university students, they graduate 19% of blacks with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees, half of the black lawyers and doctors, as well as 80% of those who have become judges.

Over their working lives, a black student graduating from an HBCU – the most famous of which is Howard University in Washington DC, of which US Vice President Kamala Harris is an alumna – can expect to earn US$927,000 more than do blacks who graduated from private colleges or universities, or state universities.

The report, entitled HBCUs Transforming Generations: Social mobility outcomes for HBCU alumni, covered the cohort born between 1980 and 1982 (supplemented where necessary by the 1983-84 cohort) that attended 50 HBCUs and 1,235 not-for-profit four-year public and private institutions.

The study found that the mobility rate – which measures the percentage of students who enter college or university from the lower class and end up in the middle or upper class – of graduates from HBCUs was 34.3%, more than double the nationwide average of 15.8%.

“This report offers an equity-centred approach to understanding higher education outcomes for under-served students,” says Dr Nadrea Njoku, interim director and lead senior researcher at the Frederick D Patterson Institute of the UNCF, based in Washington, DC. “The ultimate goal of a college degree is to fuel factual learning, maturity and growth and economic prosperity. Our research shows HBCUs contribute mightily to our well-being as a nation.”

HBCUs enrol a much larger percentage of low-income students than do other American colleges and universities. The study’s measure for this is the ‘Access Rate’, the percentage of students who are in the bottom 40% of income distribution. The HBCU ‘access rate’ is 55.3% as against an average of 22.5% for the other schools in the study.

For the group labelled ‘Ivy Plus’ – elite schools like Harvard University and its neighbour in Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the ‘access rate’ is only 9.3%.

Among HBCU institutions, Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Mississippi, has the highest ‘access rate’, 75%; Texas Southern University in Houston is the lowest of the top 10 with an ‘access rate’ of 61.7%, still almost three times the national average.

Nationwide, 72.3% of graduates who started college or university in the bottom two quintiles (ie, at the bottom 40% of national income) move to the top three quintiles or in the top 60% of income earners. HBCUs raise 67.6% of their students to the same middle-class threshold, despite having admitted a much higher percentage of low-income students.

Even more striking is the fact that 10 HBCU schools raise 75.3% of their students to the top three quintiles. Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, Njoku’s alma mater, raised 78.9% of its poorest students to this threshold, only 1.4% fewer than did the Ivy Plus schools and 6.6% more than did the quintiles average of nationwide schools.

Governments should take note that HBCUs are propelling more of their students into the middle class than are any other educational institutions, including the Ivy Plus schools, and should fund the HBCUs accordingly, says Njoku.

“HBCUs are remarkably successful at supporting the social mobility of their students, of propelling their students to a different social and economic status. Then these are the institutions that funders, the federal government, state governments and local governments should invest in first when thinking about moving their citizens further.”

Historical plight

The statistical evidence of the HBCUs’ success is all the more notable given their historical financial plight, symbolised most recently by the protest against their vermin-infested dorms that Howard students mounted recently by sleeping in tents and cars.

According to the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution, in 2019 the combined endowment for all 101 HBCUs was just over US$3.9 billion, while New York University’s endowment stood at US$4.3 billion. According to Forbes Magazine, Harvard’s endowment now tops US$53 billion. Their low level of endowment means that HBCUs do not have the reserves to make up what state governments have short-changed them.

As the Brookings Institution reported, even though a state legislative committee admits that since the 1950s, Tennessee has short-changed Tennessee State University by some US$500 million, there is a reluctance to pay up such a large sum. The Republican state senator who co-chaired the committee, Richard Briggs, stated flatly that “that’s just not going to happen”.

A 13-year court battle that ended in 2020 resulted in Maryland agreeing to pay four HBCUs US$577 million owed to them; the universities had previously turned down (Republican) Governor Larry Hogan’s offer of US$200 million.

While US President Joseph R Biden has asked Congress for tens of billions of dollars to improve the infrastructure at the HBCUs (and earlier COVID relief money has allowed a number of HBCUs to cancel their students’ debts), the underfunding of HBCUs amounts to what economists call a “structural” feature of higher education funding.

The reason for this is that the lion’s share of funding comes from state governments. And there has been little change in the funding schemes that in 2018 led the Washington DC-based Center for American Progress to report that “public colleges [most HBCUs are public] spend approximately US$5 billion less educating students of colour in one year than they do educating white students”, which works out to approximately US$1,000 per student per year.

For Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where Martin Luther King took his BA, which has 2,253 students, for example, this would work out to US$2.2 million in underfunding per year.

Njoku lays the blame for the historic and ongoing underfunding squarely at the foot of America’s history of racial thinking.

“The historic underfunding by the states goes back to general prejudice and the racist ideas about millions of African Americans related to education. That explains the idea that Tennessee, for example, would not fund or merely would purposely underfund [these] institutions because they [politicians] think that they [African Americans] didn’t need education as much” or because it wasn’t worth expending political capital to change the funding formulas.

Wrap-around services

What, then, explains the success HBCUs have in producing social mobility? Njoku’s answer points to the different ethos HBCUs have cultivated since before the landmark Civil Rights legislation of the early 1960s that struck down formal segregation.

As do all colleges and universities, HBCUs provide support – for example, tutoring and mentoring – for academically weaker students. What’s different, she says, is that at HBCUs these “wrap-around services” are not add-ons.

The faculty at the HBCUs understand that their students come from economically disadvantaged families, that they are often the first in their families to go to college and that many come from high schools that did not prepare them for the rigours of, for example, algebra.

At a state or Ivy League university, such students might fail the course. “An HBCU understands that and this class comes with additional support services: extra time in faculty’s offices, peer mentoring with students in the classroom, project-based learning, so that everyone is afforded the opportunity to learn what’s in the course,” she told University World News.

An additional wrap-around service faculty take upon themselves has less to do with academic preparedness than what might be termed “social preparedness”.

In an economics class, students would also be taught how to dress for an interview or how to show up in a corporate space; for those students who do not have the resources to dress for an interview, some HBCUs have established a wardrobe closet from which they can borrow business-appropriate clothing.

“These lessons go beyond the classroom and help propel the students. It’s not just factual education but also social and cultural. So the university itself is built to make students successful,” she says.

Njoku explained a further spur to success in the HBCUs by reference to her own experiences first as an undergraduate at Xavier University of Louisiana and then in graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. At Xavier University of Louisiana, which is an HBCU, she judged herself against the other black students. At Indiana University she felt she had to justify herself vis-à-vis her white peers.

“Or, I might be in a classroom and I’m the only black woman and the faculty member turns to me and says, “Well, Nadrea, what do you think about that? You’re a black woman, what’s your perspective? And so, the spotlight is put on me based on my social identity. Those experiences don’t happen to black students at HBCUs because it’s a whole classroom of us.”

At one point in this part of our interview, Njoku used the term “safe space”, though without any of the clichéd connotations that have recently accreted to it. HBCUs provide a campus, a classroom, she explained, where black students “aren’t made to feel like we’re at the margins or are less than because we’re black”.

Nor, she continued, do we have to stand up for the black race, to defend the black race against our white peers or Latino peers or students from different countries that are predominantly white.

Part of the reason why HBCUs are so successful in propelling their students into the middle class, Njoku emphasised more than once, is because in their classes and lecture halls, black students can “let your racial guard down and simply experience the classroom. You can concentrate on the lessons and not on all the baggage of also being a black student.”

Underfunding for rural populations

Towards the end of our interview, Njoku drew a direct line from the underfunding of HBCUs to the state of rural America. More than 50% of HBCUs are in rural areas like Talladega, Alabama (population 15,861). By underfunding HBCUs, governments do a disservice to the American population as a whole, she says.

“We know that HBCUs educate the number of black teachers far and above other institutions. So, we’re actually underfunding local schools by underfunding HBCUs because you’re not getting the teachers educated that you want to teach in the schools.

“We know that institutions like Meharry Medical College [in Nashville] are the ones that educate doctors [who are likely to remain in the local area]. By underfunding HBCUs, you are actually underfunding the health care system in the United States.

“The same is true for Tuskegee University [the famous school for ‘industrial education’ led by Booker T Washington from 1881-1915], which has the only black veterinary school in the country.

“So, I think there is such a ripple effect from underfunding black colleges and universities that ends up impacting other parts of American life. And that’s really the take-away. By underfunding them, you underfund the whole country.”