Leaders of Historically Black Colleges See Key Role for Their Institutions in Obama's 2020 Goal

June 23, 2011

Historically black colleges and universities will be integral players in the push to achieve President Obama's 2020 goal to restore the nation's standing as the country with the highest proportion of college graduates, a panel of six presidents of such institutions asserted on Thursday.

The presidents, who spoke at a news briefing in Atlanta ahead of the Southern Education Foundation's annual HBCU Governance and Institutional Effectiveness Seminar, discussed the capacities of and challenges for historically black colleges in the effort to bridge achievement gaps in higher education and to re-establish America as a global leader in research and innovation.

State and federal budget cuts and improved access for African-American students to higher education at historically white institutions have threatened the viability of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCU's, the presidents said, but the institutions remain an important part of national educational efforts and should be supported.

Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, opened the briefing, saying that college-going and college-completion rates will need to increase to reach President Obama's goals, and that "HBCU's have a role in this." The number of 25- to 34-year-olds with postsecondary degrees decreases substantially among African-Americans, he noted.

Seventeen percent of African-American students at a four-year institution attend a historically black institution, and HBCU's have been leaders in postsecondary education of underserved populations, but the panelists acknowledged that they must continue to aggressively pursue degree-completion goals.

David Wilson, who became president of Morgan State University last July, expressed pride that at his institution's graduation in May, he saw more African-American engineers graduate than he had in 23 years at other institutions. "If the nation is going to be a nation—once again—of innovators," he said, then there's a "great opportunity" for investing more in historically black institutions, which "are absolutely leading in these areas," he said.

Another president, Beverly Hogan, of Tougaloo College, said the discussion should be shifted from whether HBCU's are "relevant" to how to communicate their message better. "Our institutions absolutely educate students for academic progress and prowess," she said.

All the panelists recognized a need to speak more openly to the press and more widely publicize their institutions' successes.

Ms. Hogan noted, however, that historically black colleges have an effect on their students that is deeper than the numbers can measure, in ways like boosting confidence and providing support. Part of the challenge HBCU's must take on is developing a coherent narrative of those achievements, she said.

The panelists called for continued, maximum federal support in the form of Pell Grants, voicing concerns that enrollment and graduation rates will fall among black students if allocations for the program are cut.

Drawing attention to an apparent contradiction in the political treatment of higher education for minority students, Mr. Wilson said, "On the one hand, we have a complete-college goal at the state level and at the national level," and on the other, "we are talking about not investing in those students who are absolutely critical in achieving that national goal."

Correction (6/24, 5:25 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that African-American students at historically black colleges are four times as likely to graduate as black students attending other institutions. In fact, according to Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College and a participant in the news briefing, black students at HBCU's are three percentage points less likely to graduate than their peers at other colleges.