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Why we're not answering the call to save our HBCUs?

By James Clingman
On February 24, 2014

  • Howard University graduates more than 20 percent of the nation’s African American dentists. Justin Knight/

( - The recent New York Times article, "Hard Times at Howard," written by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, was indeed riveting and definitely an attention grabber. It conjured up memories of October 15, 2003, when I sat in a Winston-Salem, N.C. sanctuary and listened as 40 Black church leaders and Black college presidents publicly announced a self-empowering strategy to fund North Carolina's 11 HBCUs. The name of that new organization was North Carolina Black Churches for North Carolina Black Colleges, or NCBC. Begun after a fundraising effort I started for Barber-Scotia College, the NCBC brought high hopes for HBCUs.

Dr. John Mendez, President of the Ministers' Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity, said, "There is no logic to having millions of so-called educated people (most from HBC) and thousands of churches that have enlightened and saved millions of Black people, and yet we stand by and allow our colleges and universities to suffer and close their doors for financial reasons."
Rev. William S. Fails, pastor of the Greater First United Baptist Church, and originator of NCBC, added, "Judging by the fruits that our efforts bear, we would have to question the relevance of our own education and the role of the church in our community, if we do not immediately take steps to provide greater financial security for our ... Black colleges and universities." Less than two years later the effort ceased.
We see reports on the dire financial state of our HBCUs from time to time, but we seldom mount a sustainable effort to help them. Howard University, having been at the pinnacle of HBCUs for many years, is now in the news for its financial challenges.
Let's be clear: Howard is in no way "up against the wall," or "on its last leg." The state of Howard University is quite strong, to borrow a typical Washington, D.C. phrase. However, there are issues that affect all educational institutions to which Howard University is not immune, and they are part of its continuous improvement plan.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education gave Howard a score of 2.8 out 3.0 for its financial responsibility. Notwithstanding, Moody's recent downgrade on Howard's bonds, they remain investment grade. For context, Moody's and S&P issued a negative outlook for higher education (in general) in January 2013. Moody's issued a negative outlook last month to a number of institutions including the University of Chicago. The higher education sector has to adjust its sails to weather this economic storm.
However, we must also weigh value and not simply the cost. HBCUs enroll about three percent of students attending colleges and universities, but graduate 20 percent of the total number of African-American students - a significant percentage. Howard, founded in 1867, attracts students with superior academic profiles; its graduation rate is 63 percent or 20 percent higher than the national average; and in mitigation of the school's financial challenges, there has been unprecedented demand for student aid, some of which comes from the Howard endowment scholarship fund. To make matters worse, thousands of students at HBCUs especially, were negatively affected by credit requirement changes in the Federal Direct PLUS Loan program.
Howard's 2013 incoming class totaled over 1590, nearly 700 of whom are recipients of prestigious freshman scholarships and boast an average grade point average of 3.5 and SAT scores of 1221. Howard's student body comprises young people from two dozen countries and 44 states. Its youngest student is a 14 year old from Gambia who received a Capstone scholarship that includes tuition, fees, and room for four years.
Howard graduated more than 20 percent of the nation's African-American dentists last May. Together, Howard and Meharry produced 36 percent of the nation's African-American dentists of color in 2013. It is also worth noting that since 1997, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has consistently ranked Howard University as the top producer of African-American bachelor's degree recipients who subsequently earned science and engineering doctoral degrees in the United States.
Impressed? There are more positive data on Howard University and other HBCUs as well. We should be proud of our schools of higher learning and we should support them with our time, talent, and treasure to the greatest extent possible. They certainly deserve our reciprocity for their outstanding contributions to our society. 

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