Education Secretary Arne Duncan reaffirmed on Thursday the White House's commitment to helping historically black colleges survive and thrive into the future, but in a speech here he urged the institutions to improve their teacher-training programs and graduation rates.
Mr. Duncan made his remarks to several hundred leaders and staff and faculty members of black colleges who were attending a symposium on historically black colleges at North Carolina Central University, which is celebrating its centennial year.
The secretary said the administration of President Obama is giving black colleges unprecedented levels of attention and support in an effort to strengthen their financial condition. Administration officials spoke at the graduation ceremonies this spring of more than a dozen black colleges, including Hampton University, in Virginia, where the president addressed graduating students.
Through the White House initiative on historically black colleges, the administration is also trying to "shift the narrative" in the philanthropic sector, Mr. Duncan said, by promoting donations to the institutions as an investment in the future rather than an appeal based only on need.
He also touted the administration's efforts to increase money for the Pell Grant program and to provide technical assistance to black colleges to help them distribute federally backed student loans.
Minority-serving institutions, such as the nation's 105 historically black colleges, are crucial to helping reach Mr. Obama's goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, Mr. Duncan said.
But in order to attain that mark, black colleges must improve their graduation rates over all and must focus, especially, on improving their teacher-training programs, the secretary said: "It's no secret that I have sometimes been critical of teacher-preparation programs."
He urged the leaders to use data on student performance to evaluate which programs are succeeding, saying the data are not something to be feared but to be used constructively.
Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State University, in Baltimore, was one of two college presidents chosen to respond to the secretary's speech. He said that in addition to the many other challenges black colleges face, the amount of state and federal money that supports them is still not on par with the amounts that non-minority-serving colleges receive.
"This is not about special opportunities for black institutions," he said. "It's about carrying them to parity."