Historically black colleges and universities need to press their case, conference told

Historically black colleges and universities need to maintain their identities while stressing their accomplishments and continuing relevance, all while seeking increased public and private support, those at a 150th-anniversary celebration for HBCUs were told Saturday at Morgan State University.

“I’ve had that conversation, ‘Why should people send their kids to HBCUs?’ ” Brian Bridges, vice president for research and member engagement with the United Negro College Fund, told a group of about 50 gathered in the auditorium of Morgan’s Earl G. Graves School of Business & Management. “I think that we have to believe in these institutions.”

One of the keys to ensuring the continuing relevance of HBCUs is to emphasize the vital role they serve in educating a significant percentage of the country’s black population, another panel member said.

Forty-two percent of African-Americans with advanced degrees and 50 percent of teaching professionals are graduates of the country’s more than 100 HBCUs, noted Lezli Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

“We should call on… the HBCU community to lead the nation from its current position of division, its current position with African-ancestry people and other people of color being left behind,” she said.

Noting the number of academic degrees HBCUs have awarded over the past 30 years, Bridges said people should consider “where the African-American would be without those 1.3 million degrees. … There would be a massive chasm in the middle of the African-American community.”

People also need to understand, attendees were told, that HBCUs are not historical relics that have outlived their usefulness, but key components of higher education in the United States.

“HBCUs provide a laboratory for learning that’s exciting and distinctive, that you can’t get anywhere else,” said Arthur McMahon, senior associate director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Panel members added that HBCUs have long been forced to make do with less than other colleges and universities receive, and they called on both the government and the private sector to ease, if not erase, that disparity.

The federal government, for instance, spends about 2.8 percent of its higher-education budget on HBCUs, Bridges said. Doubling that would bring in “a few billion dollars. That’s real money that could make a difference at the institutions.”

And at the private level, Baskerville noted, the African-American community has a combined income estimated at $1.3 trillion. She floated the idea of using one-tenth of 1 percent of that, or $1 billion, to set up an endowment fund for HBCUs.

“America can not realize its economic goals without HBCUs,” she said.

The panel discussion, titled “HBCUs at 150 — The State of the Union,” closed a three-day celebration marking the founding of nine institutions of higher learning — the core of what would become known as the HBCUs — in the aftermath of the Civil War. In addition to Morgan, they include Alabama State University, Barber-Scotia College (North Carolina), Fayetteville State University (North Carolina), Howard University (Washington, D.C.), Johnson C. Smith University (North Carolina), Morehouse College (Georgia), St. Augustine’s University (North Carolina) and Talladega College (Alabama).

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