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Historically black institutions are still needed, perhaps more than ever [Commentary]

As the nation moves toward President Obama's goal of college degrees for 60 percent of Americans by 2020, the role of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) becomes even more important — particularly in Maryland, where 48 percent of African American students attend one of four HBCUs, compared with 16 percent nationwide.

A college degree is more important than ever, with the pay gap between college graduates and non-graduates reaching a record high last year. According to a Washington Post report, graduates earned on average nearly double the hourly rate of non-graduates. Unfortunately Maryland's HBCUs have yet to realize their full potential, largely because of unfair and unconstitutional duplication from the state's predominantly white institutions (TWIs). This duplication has resulted in essentially re-segregating the HBCUs. Their student bodies remain between 85 percent and 99 percent black, while the traditionally white institutions are between 65 percent and 94 percent white (faculty diversity is also lacking, with 77 percent of the state's African American faculty members employed at HBCUs). A federal lawsuit has led to mediation on these issues in the hopes that an equitable solution may be reached. Too many Maryland lives are at stake for the effort to fail.

A recent study from the Center for American Progress concluded that "minority serving institutions have helped increase college-going rates among high school graduates in underrepresented minority groups, in part through affordable tuition rates." Minority serving institutions include institutions that are primarily Asian-serving, Hispanic Serving or Native American Serving, along with the HBCUs, which in Maryland include Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore.

These institutions have taken on the challenge of educating students that are usually not on the radars of the TWIs. Low income students, for example, are highly represented on the HBCU campuses, which enroll 34 percent of the state's Pell Grant recipients. More than half of the HBCUs' enrollment receives the federal, need-based grants, compared with a quarter of the students at the TWIs. These students often require additional institutional involvement to be successful. Many of them, even with the available financial support, must maintain full time jobs to make ends meet — especially students who live at home. These students also tend to come from the less competitive secondary schools, so their academic skills may be less developed, and frequently they are the first in their families to attend college.

The challenge for Maryland, like other states, is to fully take advantage of the role that HBCUs continue to play in the education of the state's citizens. This requires a serious acknowledgment of the uniqueness of these institutions and a need to better reach out to the state's low income white and Hispanic students. It is very clear that a large part of the African American middle class historically includes college educated, professionally employed men and women. All evidence indicates that the state's brown and black students will become the future majority of those seeking higher education. A major thrust toward reducing the poverty in these groups of Americans is the availability of higher education.

History has demonstrated the importance of the HBCUs in producing well prepared competitive citizens for the American economy and the world community. Today's challenge lies in making these institutions more diverse and more fully effective in achieving their missions. While they were founded in response to slavery and segregation to prepare "Negro" citizens, they still have a major role to play in today's America. In addition to being repositories of African American and American culture, they must remain alternative gateways of opportunities for the many Americans and others who for many reasons are not being served by the traditionally white institutions in Maryland and across these United States. Since the founding of Maryland's first HBCU, Bowie State University in 1865, they have been a critical part of higher education. They will continue to play a significant role in the future of the state and nation. Now is the time to make them fully capable of meeting the challenges ahead.

John L. Hudgins is an associate professor of sociology at Coppin State University. His email is jhudgins@coppin.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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