Moving North Carolina’s HBCUs from the Back of the Bus to the Front

Marybeth Gasman

Marybeth Gasman

Here’s a little known fact: if you are trying to reduce your state’s higher education appropriations, and you immediately look to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities in your state as places to cut or eliminate, that’s the definition of systemic racism.

On May 29th, 2014, the North Carolina senate debated a plan that would require the Board of Governors of The University of North Carolina System to study “the feasibility of dissolving any constituent institution whose fall full-time equivalent student enrollment declined by more than twenty percent (20%) between the 2010-2011 fiscal year and the 2013-2014 fiscal year” and to develop a plan for its dissolution. One of the state’s HBCUs – Elizabeth City State University – was on the potential chopping block due to recent drops in enrollment until May 30th when the Senate changed its mind due to outrage.

This proposal was the latest effort by Republican leaders to cut costs across the UNC system. In 2013, Governor Pat McCrory suggested merging or closing HBCU campuses as well as eliminating academic programs to cut spending in the state. McCrory angered HBCU leaders and alumni who worried that this talk was the beginning of a slippery slope ending in the closing of North Carolina’s HBCUs – institutions that have disproportionately educated low-income, and often underprepared students.

Along with William Boland, I published a report in April 2014 that included data on the performance and funding of North Carolina’s HBCUs.  We found, using both state and federal data, that North Carolina’s five public HBCUs awarded 3,706 degrees to African American students. This was far more than the total amount for all Predominantly White Institutions in the state (2,507). North Carolina’s five public HBCUs conferred 60% of bachelor’s degrees from public institutions to African Americans in the state. Given the very important role that these public HBCUs play, why would you eliminate one of them? Moreover, all four-year public institutions experienced enrollment gains between 2001 and 2011 in North Carolina. Interestingly, overall HBCU enrollment grew by 42%, compared to 27% at Predominately White Institutions.  The Black student population, in particular, increased by 39% in North Carolina HBCUs. Once again, given the important role that HBCUs are playing, why would you suggest eliminating one of them?

Our report also found that in North Carolina per full time enrolled (FTE) student funding is revelatory for detecting discrepancies in funding levels. Though the state’s HBCUs enjoy higher funding levels than HBCUs in Alabama, Louisiana, or Mississippi, the highest per FTE HBCU (Winston-Salem University at $10,618 in 2011), is still nearly half that of UNC Chapel Hill ($17,992) and North Carolina State University ($15,558).  How are North Carolina’s HBCUs supposed to compete in terms of enrollment, retention, and graduation, when they are not given a level playing field on which to play?

Rather than consider eliminating an institution that has at the heart of its mission the education of low-income, African American students, why not invest wholeheartedly in this institution and all of North Carolina’s HBCUs and abolish historic and current discrimination in state funding?  I think that somehow the legislators of North Carolina have forgotten what their constituents look like; 35% of the state’s citizens are people of color and that percentage is growing rapidly.  Moreover, it doesn’t seem that the legislators are listening to the radio, watching the news, or reading a newspaper – the United States is on it’s way to becoming a majority minority.  States such as North Carolina should step up and be out in front when it comes to educating racial and ethnic minorities and supporting the institutions that do the lion’s share of that work rather than standing at the back of the line, rather than standing at the back of the line.

Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSIs). 

Undermatching and Overreaching

Michael Sorrell

Michael Sorrell

This blog, while inspired by Paul Tough’s recent article in the New York Times, is really in response to the growing chorus of people lamenting over so-called “undermatching” in higher education.  Undermatching is the latest higher education cause du jour.  It is based upon the idea that high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds are being ill-served by matriculating at less prestigious colleges and universities and therefore, should scale up and attend more celebrated ones.  Undermatching advocates, who coincidentally all seem to either be employed by or graduated from these more celebrated colleges and universities, believe that if these bright students would opt for better schools, their lives will be immeasurably improved.

There are innumerable flaws in the undermatching argument.  However, this article is not about exposing those deficiencies or questioning the sincerity of this new fascination with economically deprived smart students.  Rather, as the president of one of those colleges that allegedly does irreparable harm to students (which is so insulting a charge that it merits a column itself), I have decided to venture in another direction and offer my uptown peers some friendly advice on how to succeed in the land of under-resourced students.

As is often the case when people attempt to start revolutions from above, the current school of thought completely misses the root of the problem. As Tough’s article highlights, when about a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24 and almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile finish their degrees by that age, the issue is not where smart students are opting to attend college. The reality that too few people want to admit is that family wealth (or lack thereof) matters when it comes to college completion.

Therefore, in the interest of redirecting this fledgling revolution, I have channeled Occam’s Razor and created a simplified list of tenets to guide my medallion friends as they chart the new, unfamiliar terrain of under-resourced communities. These principles are based on the premise that you cannot lead people you do not love and you certainly should not educate students whom you do not know:

  1. Recruit under-resourced men and women as students the same way your coaches recruit them as athletes. Coaches are masterful at immersing themselves in the lives of their star recruits by cultivating relationships with the athlete-student’s parents, significant others, favorite teachers, and other key influencers. In order to help students from under-resourced communities excel on your campuses, someone from your institution better have the ability to access such relationships. Doing so will determine whether the student survives their first speed bump on your campus.
  2. You are not just their college; you are now their surrogate parent.  Under-resourced communities are rife with failing and dying institutions. Perhaps none more so than the two parent household.  In many instances, the only healthy environment a student may see comes from their high school. In the absence of stable family lives, high school principals, counselors, and teachers become surrogate mothers and fathers.  Therefore, if your staff thinks their jobs are solely to ensure these students master academic subject matter, you have already failed them.  You will need to establish a robust support system that includes providing academic, emotional, and financial resources when necessary.
  3. Say good-bye to your U.S. News & World Report ranking.  One of the reasons why less prestigious schools do not fare well in these rankings is we understand that we cannot serve two masters. If given a choice between a ranking and taking a chance on helping young men and women change their lives forever, we will always choose the latter.  When the rubber meets the road, which will you choose?
  4. Be sincere. Real recognizes real.  If you do not know what this means, find someone who does – quickly.

By elevating undermatching into the national consciousness, you have signaled to scores of under-resourced students that your colleges and universities will properly care for them.  Successfully integrating them into your affluent environments will require a complete cultural, philosophical, and pedagogical shift. Are you ready?

Michael J. Sorrell is president of Paul Quinn College and a member of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions’ Advisory Board

[A similar version of this post was published in The Dallas Morning News on May 28, 2014]

Higher Education is Messy in California


Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen

California higher education is in big trouble. No surprise there, but the likely culprits of poor student access, affordability and completion may not be just the institutions themselves. Unbeknownst to individuals not privy to California’s complex political ecology, the state’s three primary systems of higher education, according to a new report released by the Institute for Research on Higher Education, are constrained by the inability of state legislatures to determine and align state’s needs to a unified higher education agenda. This situation makes it difficult for institutions to address the needs of racial minority and low-income students, whose enrollment has diminished since the 2008 recession, for increased, affordable educational opportunities. Based on the report’s analysis, there is little evidence — a complex political environment and political indifference, a non-existing statewide finance policy, and insufficient attention to student transitions from high school as well as between the three systems — of a promising future for California higher education.

“California is allergic to leadership,” claims a higher education policymaker, who was interviewed for the report. Not far from the truth, such a statement speaks to the uncoordinated efforts by politicians, policymakers and system leaders — fueled by their individual agendas — to address increasing costs to institutional capacity, dwindling federal financial support and a growing demand for a college education. Unlike other states, California does not possess a higher education governing board that determines the state’s goals, agenda and systematic strategy for improving educational attainment. And despite the 1960 Master Plan, which was developed to give direction to California’s three public systems — University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges — and encourage them to work together, today we see them doing the exact opposite. Each system deliberates on tuition and fees and strategies for survival in isolation of each other, without regard to the students who are moving within and across systems. Even permission to access student records across the three segments lies within each system. The three systems have outgrown the intentions of the Master Plan, and they are in dire need of a board that can unify their efforts as well as represent a formidable force at the state-level.

The median family income has dropped eight percent between 2000-2011, however, tuition across the three California public systems has been anything, but static. According to the report, “At UC, tuition and fees increased from $6,576 in 2007-2008 to $12,132 in 2013-2014 for in-state undergraduates. CSU tuition and fees rose from $3,521 in 2007-2008 to $6,519 in 2011-2012. Fees in two-year institutions doubled, from $600 in 2008-09 to $1,424 in 2013-2014” (p. 10). Moreover, “state appropriations, tuition, and financial aid are established separately with no consideration as to how they align with statewide policies” (p. 2).

This is akin to shooting darts in the dark, or flushing money down the toilet. Despite the tightening of institutional purse strings at the state and federal level, states, especially California in this case, must assess how their lack of financial policy has contributed to the states financial burden. And lastly, there is little coordination within and between the three public systems and the greater K-12 system. The availability of courses to satisfy requirements for each system remain varied across the state and the requirements for smooth transition from a community college to a California State or University of California campus are confounded and constrained by inconsistent course policies. Recent reforms to address these challenges have been met with overall poor transfer rates to four-year institutions.

The unruly environment at the state-level makes it challenging for all students to enter and navigate college, but considering California’s population is 59 percent people of color, consequences of this environment may be more severe for minority students who tend to stem from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Improving achievement for all students must require a stringent examination of how policy is created in order to redevelop a process that tears down barriers, as opposed to creating new ones.

Thai-Huy P. Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at PennGSE and a research assistant at CMSIs. 

This article was jointly published with the Huffington Post on Wednesday, May 14th, 2014.