One important contribution of the African-American community to our nation’s history and future prosperity are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The founders of these institutions recognized, as Frederick Douglass once said, that education “means emancipation.” Since their origination (beginning with Pennsylvania’s Cheney University in 1837) to the present day, these schools have understood that a quality education can give people the knowledge, skills and tools to reach their promise and to challenge the structural barriers created by institutional racism.
HBCUs have produced African-American leaders in every field: including civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse), NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (West Virginia State University), founder of the Children’s Defense Fund Marian Wright Edelman (Spelman), and Microsoft Chairman John Thompson (Florida A&M). HBCUs also produce a disproportionate number of black graduates in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Take Xavier, for example, which awards more undergraduate degrees in the biological and physical sciences to African-American students than any other university in the nation.
HBCUs also have been at the vanguard of civil rights advancements from the pivotal role of Howard Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston in crafting the legal strategy to defeat Jim Crow and the brilliant victory of his star student Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education to the North Carolina A&T students who led the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C.
My own grandmother — Estelle Livingston Stansberry King — attended Princess Anne Academy, now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and she graduated from there in 1894. A descendant of enslaved people on the Wye plantation and the Nanticoke Indian tribe, she was among a very limited number of women of color to complete college in the 1800s and became a nurse.
My grandmother encouraged her sons to attend college in the 1920s and 1930s, during a time when racism and segregation made higher education inaccessible to most young black men. Thanks to her, my father became a career public school educator and the first black principal in Brooklyn, N.Y.; my Uncle Hal was a Tuskegee airman (one of the first African-American pilots in the U.S. military) and career air force officer; and my Uncle Dolly was a celebrated college athlete, one of the first black players to integrate professional basketball, and a professional baseball player for the Homestead Grays of the Negro leagues. Even though I never met her, my grandmother is one of the people who inspired me to pursue my own career in education and to help those who are historically underserved and most vulnerable.
HBCUs have a long history of graduating black students who — like my grandmother — are prepared for success and today often serve as examples for peer institutions that too often can equate low-income African-American students with failure rather than success. At The Education Trust, our recent report, A Look at Black Student Success, demonstrated that, when compared with colleges serving similar students (in terms of financial need and entering academic performance), HBCUs were more successful in helping students graduate.
However, looking across all higher education institutions, we have more work to do. Our report explains that nationwide although more black students are enrolling in four-year colleges and universities than ever before, not enough of these students graduate. In fact, only about four in 10 black students who start college as first-time, full-time freshmen earn a bachelor’s degree from those institutions within six years. This rate is almost 25 percentage points below that of white students.
Surely, the completion gap has many causes. Among them are disparities in opportunities to learn for black students from preschool though postsecondary education; inequities in allocation of resources for students of color versus their white peers — including education funding and access to rigorous coursework and effective teachers; and structural racism and biases that inhibit black students from thriving.
Closing gaps in college completion for black students will take improving graduation rates at institutions where black students are more likely to attend, including HBCUs; changing enrollment patterns so that selective institutions enroll more black students; and increasing the supports that students receive in college so that they can persist through graduation day.
The work before us to support black students’ success is about giving our children the freedom to choose to become whatever they dream they can be. In doing this work, we can be confident that we are building upon a legacy of past achievements led by many of our nation’s HBCUs and their graduates.
John B. King Jr. is former U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama administration and president and CEO of The Education Trust. His email is John.King@edtrust.org; Twitter: @JohnBKing.