Should HBCUs Shrink Enrollments?

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Gregory D. Price

Notwithstanding their ongoing effectiveness and relevance in an era in which the descendants of American Negro Slaves have many postsecondary educational options, the newly released and publically available College Scorecard data by the US Department of Education enables some interesting research, policy, and existential questions regarding our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).[1] If one views graduating from an HBCU as an investment that increases the likelihood that one earns more than one would as just a high school graduate, then, in the parlance of economists, graduating from an HBCU can be narrowly viewed as a “Labor Market Treatment.”

Consider in this context a student who attends and/or graduates from an HBCU, receives some form of federally subsidized student aid, and is 6 to 10 years out from attending/graduating. Such is the criteria for capturing earnings in the Scorecard data, and for a given college/university, the earnings of students are estimated and can be compared against the typical earnings of a high school graduate, which the Scorecard cites as $25,000/year. It is this comparison that provides insight into the “Labor Market Treatment” of those attending/graduating from an HBCU. The scorecard provides a percentage estimate of how much of an HBCU’s attendees/graduates earn more than those of a typical high school graduate.

Relative to HBCU attendees/graduates, one can think of high school graduates as some sort of college investment “counterfactual,” or the labor market earnings HBCU attendees/graduates might have achieved had they not expended the resources to attend/graduate from an HBCU. Thus for a given HBCU, the fraction of its attendees/graduates that fare worse in the labor market relative to high school graduates provides an estimate of how many of them would have been “better off” to take the counterfactual route and not attended/graduated from that HBCU. It is in this context that Scorecard data can inform whether or not HBCUs enroll/graduate too many students and should consider “shrinking” their enrollments.

As an example, I shall appeal to the Scorecard data to consider if student enrollments are possibly too high at three HBCUs: Spelman College, which is consistently the highest ranked HBCU, as well as Morehouse College and Langston University—two HBCUs I am currently affiliated with. Querying the Scorecard data online for each HBCU, one finds that for Spelman, Morehouse, and Langston, the percentages of attendees/graduates that earn more than a typical high school graduate are approximately 65%, 58%, and 43% respectively. One stark implication here is that if one views attendance/graduation from an HBCU as a narrow “Labor Market Treatment,” then in the case of Spelman, Morehouse and Langston, the investment is not worth it for approximately 35%, 42%, and 57% of attendees/graduates, respectively. Using the example of this crude case study, if each of these HBCUs were solely interested in optimizing the labor market outcomes of its attendees/graduates, Spelman, Morehouse and Langston should shrink their enrollments accordingly.

Of course, the case for attending/graduating from an HBCU is not necessarily, and ought not be, solely based on how much attendees/graduates earn in the labor market. To invoke the labor market earnings of HBCU attendees/graduates as the only meaningful evaluation metric is to reduce HBCUs to mere vocational training institutes, which runs counter to the aims and prerogatives Enlightenment, which situated colleges/universities as places where the intellect would be cultivated independent of, maybe even in spite of, practical consequences so as sustain human progress that depended solely upon reason. This ideal of course clashes with the empirical reality that the real cost of attending/graduating from a college/university has exceeded the rate of inflation over the past 30 years, rendering a major in say Anthropology a tough sell for many, as it has no obvious labor market payoff relative to say a major in Accounting. Indeed, one motivation for the construction of the Scorecard data was to provide data to engage in accountability exercises for colleges/universities—what value do they add for students?

In an educational policy environment where tangible evidence of post-graduate effectiveness is dominant and taken uncritically seriously, the HBCU Labor Market Treatment estimates from Scorecard data reported here suggest that at least some HBCUs may have to consider shrinking their enrollments so as to maximize their effectiveness. Of course, doing so would pose existential challenges because the optimal size for some HBCUs according to this metric could be too small to warrant keeping the doors open at all. To paraphrase Jean Paul Sartre, “Every society selects its dead.” If HBCUs are only relevant as a “Labor Market Treatment,” the task of selecting which HBCUs should cease operating is a dreadful one and requires, in my view, a serious consideration of what their central aims/purposes are and ought to be, beyond the tangible and coarse cost-benefit analytics of vocational labor market outcomes.

Of course, one must recognize the “ceteris paribus” nature of the Scorecard data, and be committed to testing HBCU treatment effects more seriously, and I have already contributed to this literature. Nonetheless, the 43% issue is potentially troubling and suggests there are too many students enrolled who do not tangibly benefit from graduating from HBCUs like Langston, Morehouse and Spelman.  For how many HBCUs is this true? If so, is shrinking enrolments at HBCUs a sensible strategy to maximize the returns for those students who would benefit most?

This same argument holds for more selective universities. If one looks at the labor market returns for Yale University graduates, less than 100% earn more than the typical high school graduate. This suggests that institutions like Yale also have “too many students.” To see this, go the link below:

https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/school/?207209-Langston-University

[1] The data are available at https://collegescorecard.ed.gov

Gregory D. Price, Ph.D is Professor of Economics and Interim Dean of the School of Business at Langston University and an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. 

 

 

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