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Posted by jcmaziquemd on October 3, 2010

Black Colleges Need a New Mission

Once an essential response to racism, they are now academically inferior.

By JASON L. RILEY

President Obama has shown a commendable willingness to shake up the status quo in K-12 education by advocating reforms, such as charter schools, that have left his teachers union base none-too-pleased. So it’s unfortunate that he has such a conventional approach to higher education, and to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in particular.

Earlier this month, Mr. Obama hosted a White House reception to celebrate the contributions of the nation’s 105 black colleges and to reiterate his pledge to invest another $850 million in these institutions over the next decade.

Recalling the circumstances under which many of these schools were created after the Civil War, the president noted that "at a critical time in our nation’s history, HBCUs waged war against illiteracy and ignorance and won." He added: "You have made it possible for millions of people to achieve their dreams and gave so many young people a chance they never thought they’d have, a chance that nobody else would give them."

The reality today, however, is that there’s no shortage of traditional colleges willing to give black students a chance. When segregation was legal, black colleges were responsible for almost all black collegians. Today, nearly 90% of black students spurn such schools, and the available evidence shows that, in the main, these students are better off exercising their non-HBCU options.

"Even the best black colleges and universities do not approach the standards of quality of respectable institutions," according to economist Thomas Sowell. "None has a department ranking among the leading graduate departments in any of the 29 fields surveyed by the American Council of Education. None ranks among the ‘selective’ institutions with regard to student admissions. None has a student body whose College Board scores are within 100 points of any school in the Ivy League."

Mr. Sowell wrote that in an academic journal in 1974, yet with few exceptions the description remains accurate. These days the better black schools—Howard, Spelman, Morehouse—are rated "selective" in the U.S. News rankings, but their average SAT scores still lag behind those at decent state schools like the University of Texas at Austin, never mind a Stanford or Yale.

In 2006, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the six-year graduation rate at HBCUs was 37%. That’s 20 percentage points below the national average and eight percentage points below the average of black students at other colleges. A recent Washington Monthly magazine survey of colleges with the worst graduation rates featured black schools in first and second place, and in eight of the top 24 spots.

The economists Roland Fryer of Harvard and Michael Greenstone of MIT have found that black colleges are inferior to traditional schools in preparing students for post-college life. "In the 1970s, HBCU matriculation was associated with higher wages and an increased probability of graduation, relative to attending a [traditional college]," they wrote in a 2007 paper. "By the 1990s, however, there is a substantial wage penalty. Overall, there is a 20% decline in the relative wages of HBCU graduates in just two decades." The authors concluded that "by some measures, HBCU attendance appears to retard black progress."

Mr. Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have urged HBCUs to improve their graduation rates—Mr. Duncan has said they need to increase "exponentially"—but the administration has brought little pressure to bear and is offering substantial financial assistance to keep them afloat. Howard and Spelman have endowments valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but a large majority of black colleges have very small endowments and more than 80% get most of their revenue from the government.

Instead of more subsidies and toothless warnings to shape up, Mr. Obama ought to use the federal government’s leverage to remake these schools to meet today’s challenges.

Uneconomically small black colleges could be consolidated. For-profit entities could be brought in to manage other schools. (For the past two years, the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college, has conferred more bachelor’s degrees on black students than any other school.) Still other HBCUs could be repurposed as community colleges that focus on developmental courses to compensate for the poor elementary and secondary educations that so many black children still receive.

In 1967, two white academics, Christopher Jencks and David Riesman, published a bleak but prescient assessment of black colleges in the Harvard Educational Review. They predicted that these schools are "for the most part, likely to remain fourth-rate institutions at the tail end of the academic procession." Messrs. Jencks and Riesman were called racists, and honest comprehensive studies of black colleges have since been rare.

Black colleges are at a crossroads.At one time black colleges were an essential response to racism. They trained a generation of civil rights lawyers and activists who helped end segregation. Their place in U.S. history is secure. Today, however, dwindling enrollments and endowments indicate that fewer and fewer blacks believe that these schools, as currently constituted, represent the best available academic choice.

A black president is uniquely qualified to restart this discussion. Anyone who cares about the future of black higher education should hope that he does.

Mr. Riley is a member of the Journal’s editor

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