President Barack Obama spoke in August at the University of Texas in Austin, urging the United States to regain the world lead in college graduation rates by 2020. He underscored the direct relationship between education and economic growth, and he warned that American prosperity depends on a better-educated work force.
Just a decade earlier, he noted, the United States led the world in college graduation rates. Now, according to a College Board report, a mere 38.5 percent of Americans age 55 to 64 have at least an associate's degree, placing us fourth in a survey of 36 developed nations.
Regaining the international lead in college graduation rates will require that all U.S. institutions of higher learning critically evaluate their missions and their effectiveness. The president's goal puts new demands on the nation's remaining 105 historically black colleges and universities, popularly referred to as HBCUs. For generations, before civil rights legislation changed admissions policies at traditionally white schools, most African-Americans graduated, in high numbers, from HBCUs.
Today, however, the overwhelming majority of HBCUs have dismal graduation rates, a phenomenon Obama was aware of when he spoke in Austin. The Associated Press studied six-year graduation rates of 83 four-year HBCUs and found that only 37 percent of black students earned degrees within six years. Just as worrisome as the low completion rate was the fact that the national graduation rate for black students is 4 percentage points higher than that of the HBCUs collectively.
More bad news came in May from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The agency banned a record eight teams from postseason play as a result of their athletes' poor academic performance. Four of the teams are at HBCUs, and a fifth is from a school in Illinois designated as predominantly black.
What do these statistics portend? For one, they challenge the cherished notion that historically black schools — touted as nourishing environments — are better at graduating black students. They also mean that to remain relevant, HBCUs must find ways to play a crucial role in improving the nation's education attainment levels Obama envisions for 2020. In short, HBCUs must graduate more students on time.
Obama appointed John S. Wilson Jr. as the executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs. Wilson, formerly an administrator at George Washington University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is studying data, good and bad, that can help HBCUs improve their graduation rates.
Wilson recently met in Atlanta with about 100 HBCU presidents during a conference hosted by the Southern Education Foundation. In a blunt speech, he told the presidents that to achieve Obama's goal, the nation will need to produce about 8 million more graduates — 2 million of whom need to be African-American, and 200,000 from black colleges.
"HBCUs and their productivity are built into the way we see the problem being solved," Wilson said. "That means we have to go from about 36,000 graduates per year to somewhere north of 50,000 a year. That is a big challenge."
Contributing to the challenge, as Wilson has said often, is the need for HBCUs to rewrite their standard narrative of "against great odds," which suggests "survival" and "victimization." Shortly after Obama hired him, Wilson said: "Black colleges will never be as strong as they can be unless that narrative changes. … We need to shift from how to survive to how to thrive."
Wilson does not dismiss the problems common to virtually all HBCUs: low faculty salaries, insufficient financial aid for students from low-income families, students with low SAT and ACT scores and inadequate facilities and equipment. At the same time, the schools are facing mounting questions from state and federal legislators about their relevance in an era when education budgets are shrinking, mainline colleges and universities increasingly are competing for black students, and growing numbers of voters are complaining about supporting HBCUs with public funds.
Still, HBCUs will need to find ways to heed Obama's call. They will need to prove their worth by helping to boost the nation's graduation rates.