Saving HBCUs: The survival of the fittest


By Barbara K. Barnes, Ph.D.; & Malcolm Q.Barnes                                                                                                            
Special to the Outlook

Critics and advocates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) from across the higher education landscape often focus in their discourses on the various executive, management, and financial challenges facing these institutions.  These commentators’ discourses in editorials, news articles, and blogs generally have offered little or no “food for thought” about how these challenges could be addressed.  This article undertakes a more positive approach and hopefully a more useful approach to addressing some of these challenges.  These writers approach is to suggest four high priority objectives for HBCU executives, their leadership teams, and trustee boards to undertake as means for promoting the survival of their institutions.  Our suggested objectives for high priority are:

•improving performance measures related to student success;
•improving critical institutional functions through smart innovation;
•improving engagement with stakeholder and supporter communities; and
•supporting and lobbying for the creation of public private partnerships.
The writers believe that “student success” must be the highest priority of every HBCU.  Legislators, education policymakers, and higher education accountability officials are in accord on the characteristics of a successful student.  Student success is determined by the following factors: (1) persistence of students through graduation;  (2) students graduating on time; and (3) graduates’ readiness and ability to compete in the global marketplace.  When a student does not persist through graduation, not only does the institution incur a loss of revenue, but the student forfeits the benefits of his or her degree.  When a student takes more than 4 years to earn a four-year degree, his or her debt burden usually increases substantially.  If the student is not employed shortly after graduation, the potential payoff from his or her educational investment is quickly diminished.  In other words, “student access without student success is hollow.”  Therefore, the human and capital resources of HBCUs should be focused on maximizing student success.  For HBCUs where student success rates are low, those institutions’ prospects for survival are poor.  The writers also believe that student success measures can only be improved through smart innovation in the respective institution’s academic and student affairs functions.  For example, the academic programs function should offer more degree programs in fields designed to support the 21st century workplace and economy.
According to J. L. Carter of HBCU Digest, the prediction has been made that about 50 (of 106) HBCUs will survive the next decade (HBCU Digest, July 2017).  It is in this context that we contend that without significant short-term improvements in  critical institutional functions and  more productive  stakeholder engagement , Carter’s prediction could indeed become a reality.  In this scenario, some of the “fittest” HBCUs would indeed close their doors and that would be a national disaster.  Clearly, no HBCU can thrive nor even survive by “continuing to do business as usual”.  Most, if not all, of these institutions must implement effective data based problem solving strategies combined with smart innovations in their critical institutional functions.  On the other hand, even comprehensive and highly effective innovation of critical institutional functions alone will not ensure the survival of even the nation’s strongest HBCUs.  This assertion is grounded in the reality that each institution’s ability to (1) maintain and grow enrollments, (2) garner extramural funds, and (3) engender the support of alumni, the support of foundations, and the support of governmental entities greatly depends on strong engagement with its stakeholder and supporter communities.  Clearly for any institution to survive, particularly an HBCU,  it must maintain monetarily productive relationships with its stakeholder and supporter communities.

However surprising it may be, the writers are unequivocally suggesting the creation of new initiatives related to student success, innovation, and outreach which would require new spending at a time when HBCU budgets are stretched to the limits in some, if not most, instances. However, we are not suggesting to HBCU leaders that they choose between “medicine and food”.  Rather, based on our recognition of the challenging financial circumstances confronting HBCUs in general, the writers have envisaged a public private partnership whose purpose would be to provide financial and technical support for student success, for smart innovation and for outreach initiatives at HBCUs. Ideally, any future funding the partnership offered would be earmarked for projects directly related to the four priority objectives identified in the opening of this discourse.  Fortunately, a well-established public postsecondary funding structure is already in place which could be augmented to incorporate funding from private foundations and donors.  This funding structure is the Title III, Part B Program offered by the US Department of Education (USDOE).  The writers believe that a private public-private partnership undergirded by the Title III Program could provide numerous  high impact opportunities for boosting the sustainability of the fittest HBCUs by leveraging both federal and private funds.  The writers refer to this public private partnership as the HBCU Sustainability Alliance (HSA).  The HSA could provide a robust structure through which both private and public investments in the stronger HBCUs could be channeled.  Believing that the HSA is an idea worth considering, the writers are urging a group of the staunchest HBCU proponents to assemble sooner rather than later to explore the feasibility of initiating and building the HBCU Sustainability Alliance.

Given that HBCUs have contributed significantly to the attainment of equal opportunity through postsecondary education for Black, low-income, and educationally disadvantaged Americans, the increases in financial and technical support for HBCUs suggested above are not difficult to justify.  This statement, when supported by the remarkable accomplishments of the individual institutions, presents a strong case for the survival and continuing operation of the fittest HBCUs.  It is noteworthy that in fiscal year 2016, a total of 98 Title III continuing grants were awarded to HBCUs.  This fact supports our contention that HBCUs contribute substantially to the mission of the USDOE which is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.  Finally, as HBCU alumni, we proudly remind readers that HBCUs are national treasures (1) which have provided a quality education to tens of thousands of US citizens, (2) which have had significant positive impact on their local, state, and national economies; and (3) whose graduates are contributors in virtually every field of human endeavor around the globe.