Leadership & Governance

Howard U. Seeks to Balance Student Need and the Bottom Line

Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard U.

May 06, 2016

Produced by Julia Schmalz and Carmen Mendoza

Howard University is widely considered one of the nation’s premiere minority-serving institutions. But it has faced fiscal challenges in recent years because of the Great Recession and the large number of low-income students it serves. Wayne A.I. Frederick, Howard’s president, says the university needs to be more selective in enrolling students and choosing how to support them with financial aid.

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ERIC KELDERMAN: Hi. I'm Eric Kelderman, a senior reporter here at The Chronicle of Higher Education. And today we're talking with Wayne Frederick, the president of Howard University, a notable historically black college right here in our nation's capital. Welcome to the Chronicle, Mr. Frederick.

WAYNE FREDERICK: Thanks for having me.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Most of the folks in and around DC think of this as sort of a very important local institution. Tell me a little bit about Howard's sort of national and historical significance.

WAYNE FREDERICK: Sure. Well, we are embarking on celebrating our 150th anniversary in 2017. So since 1867, the founding of Howard, which served freed slaves coming from the South to the North, in terms of educating them really was born out of a great compassion by 17 men for wanting to provide that type of an education. And when you look from its very birth, consistently as a university, it has really provided and played a significant role in America. So long before faculty had both men and women on its roster, Howard University had that.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Even a lot of sort of notable, mid-sized private universities in the country, Howard has faced a lot of economic pressures, especially since the Great Recession. As an institution, it serves mostly minority, mostly low-income students. Your challenges are even greater. Can you talk about how do you balance that sort of mission of the institution, serving those students, with the fiscal constraints that you're facing right now?

WAYNE FREDERICK: Well, I think we have to be realistic and very pragmatic about what we're trying to do. And clearly the economic circumstances have affected folks in this country very differently. African-American unemployment is twice that of the national average and of Caucasians in this country.

So when you look at it from that perspective, you've got a more challenged segment of the society that we certainly attract more of who would have difficulty, which means that we have to apply more resources in order to support those students. Thus, the simple matriculation requires more institutional aid to be applied.

I think what we've done in the past is that we've had a responsibility in the past to be all things to all people, especially people of color. When you look at what segregation, Jim Crow [INAUDIBLE] really gave us, so we had no choice. We were either the first or the only.

My mentor, Dr. [? Laford, ?] could only apply to two medical schools in this country in 1948, despite graduating from Florida A&M, what was known as Florida A&M College at the time, with one B on his transcript. As an 18-year-old, could only apply to two medical schools in this country. Today there are far more opportunities.

But the point being that we have to still provide that opportunity, but we also have to be a lot more efficient and a lot more selective, I think, in terms of where can we really have a major impact, and not just do it for the sake of doing it. And then rather than give a lot of people a little bit of assistance, can we give those with the greatest need as much assistance as they need? And then we're not kind of sprinkling dust everywhere and not seeing the impact.

And I think that's part of the challenge. So that means that we've got to operate more efficiently. We've got to be more nimble fiscally in terms of how we manage financial aid and the institutional resources. And then we also have got to make sure our infrastructure is strong.

ERIC KELDERMAN: A particular issue that I'm aware of for historically black colleges-- they have a sort of dual identity. On one hand, they're well regarded as sort of nurturing environments for academically gifted black students. They're thought of as a community, as family.

On the other hand, they also have a sort of reputation, fairly or unfairly, of being bureaucratically inefficient-- a lot of red tape, a lot of administrative frustration for those very same students. Is that a fair description, and how do you deal with that at Howard University?

WAYNE FREDERICK: Yes. So two things I'll say to that. One is I think the reputation around nurturing I think sometimes can be misunderstood or misapplied. I think that nurturing really comes from-- I would say it's being in an environment where you are more comfortable to find yourself, to be yourself. And I think when you juxtapose that against some of the issues that we're seeing about African American students on majority white campuses, I think it speaks to that.

And then when you look at studies, such as the Gallup survey, that looked at African Americans who graduate from HBCUs in terms of their success rate versus African Americans who graduate from other institutions, I think all of that speaks to the value of-- I think it's really, rather than a nurturing, as in cuddle, I think it's more of a lack of inhibition that allows people to grow.

And then on the second aspect of that with respect to the bureaucracy, I've only been in one HBCU in my academic career. I've worked at majority white institutions outside of Howard. So I'd be a little bit loathe to say what the experience is around. I understand what the reputation is out. But speaking to what occurs at Howard, I think you have a couple of factors.

One is you have some of the neediest students. So we're a private institution, but we have 60% Pell Grant eligibility, which means that if you compare us to the other institutions in Washington, DC, it's 11%, 14%, and 18%, respectively. So it's a world of difference.

So you've got kids who are attempting to go to a private institution, and they don't have the resources. Then you also look at the size of our endowment in terms of another look at resources. Our endowment is $600 million. It's the largest among the HBCUs. The largest endowment in higher ed is at $40 billion.

And when you look at the top 20 institutions are majority white. And you look at the top 20 HBCUs, it's a world of difference in terms of what those resources bring. So for example, at Ivy League institutions, if you make $60,000 or less, you go to school for free-- $65,000, to be accurate. At Howard, that's about a little above the average income [INAUDIBLE] most of them.

So you've got kids who now need more assistance, need to be going to financial aid more. Whereas at those institutions, you've eliminated the need for them to even show up with financial aid, because you've taken care of that. And so that means that where you apply your resources, and operationally what you need to do, is very different.

So I don't leverage technology the way I should. And if I could, I would eliminate a lot of the bureaucracy. When I first took over, we still had an override form that five people had to sign. That's now web-based. Just that one move the first summer I took over as provost, it was night and day in terms of changing a significant bureaucratic issue. And I think we have to do a better job of that.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Great. Well, thanks for coming into The Chronicle today. It was a pleasure talking with you.

WAYNE FREDERICK: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.