Online education has become the fastest-growing segment of the higher-education market, driven by booming enrollments at for-profit institutions and steadier efforts at nonprofit colleges to cut instructional costs and reach more students with electronic courses.
But historically black colleges are moving more cautiously toward adopting online-degree programs, according to a new report from the Digital Learning Laboratory at Howard University.
Researcher Roy L. Beasley found that 19 of the nation’s 105 historically black colleges now offer an online-degree program—an increase of seven institutions since 2006.
More than two-thirds of the online programs are found at public black colleges, and a dozen of the 20 largest black institutions offer such programs, Mr. Beasley concluded. And he found that among the 20 black colleges with the highest graduation rates, only seven offered online-degree programs.
The problem is that the same economic conditions that make online programs desirable (to increase enrollment at a lower cost) also hamper black colleges, especially the many small, private institutions that have insufficient resources and electronic infrastructure.
On the positive side, two companies have emerged to help black colleges overcome those hurdles: HBCUs Online, begun this fall by the popular radio host Tom Joyner, who has also been a major donor to historically black colleges, and Education Online Services Corporation, headed by former NAACP president Benjamin F. Chavis.
To the extent that online programs are successful at attracting and retaining nontraditional students, the move to offer more courses electronically may help rescue many financially challenged black colleges, Mr. Beasley says.
“At this point, declining student enrollments pose an existential challenge,” he says. “In their search for ways to increase their enrollments, the private HBCU’s that hitherto have shown little or no interest in meeting the continuing education needs of nontraditional African-American students are now giving serious consideration to online programs, not only as a potential source of sorely needed additional revenue, but also as a source of additional enrollments that would help them justify their continued existence.”