Black Student Success Report Card Shows PWI Failure is More Valuable Than HBCU Excellence

The University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center has released a report on the state of black student success at a portion of America’s four-year public colleges and universities. Historically black colleges were among the industry’s institution groups excluded from the studies, because the report’s lead author and center executive director Shaun Harper said on Facebook (not in the report) that certain historic missions and resulting data yield didn’t help in painting a picture of black student access and success in higher education.

Nothing could be further from the truth, given the disproportionate weight carried by HBCUs in most of the indicators examined in Dr. Harper’s report.

The report details access and success indicators for more than 950,000 students at 506 public institutions nationwide, sorted by data from 2016 and organized by the US Department of Education. The list of how accessible schools are and how effective they are in graduating black students is broken down thusly:

According to federal data, more than 144,000 black men and women attended public HBCUs in 2016-17, just over 15% of the total black student enrollment nationwide during the measured period. It is difficult to imagine any reputable survey of black student success in higher education at large where at least 15% of the control group is eliminated for not meeting a standard of “appropriateness.”

But let’s look at the idea of appropriateness in this survey. There is ground to concede that HBCUs could have been omitted because there is not an HBCU campus in every state. And perhaps there would’ve been grounds to leave out black colleges for baseline thresholds like endowment resources or a minimum enrollment threshold.

But leaving HBCUs out along these four specific areas of performance boxes them out of nearly every indicator that would place the nation’s 47 public four-year HBCUs at least among the top 60 of the nation’s best-performing colleges for black students by this report’s standards. And that prospect is not something which easily fits Dr. Harper, an Albany State University graduate, and his role as the nation’s preeminent PWI shamer.

There’s nothing wrong with shaming PWIs when it comes to race and equity in higher education. Most white colleges play fast and loose with statistics, enrollment strategy and resources to lure black students in, only to turn out a fraction of them as graduates and with most disillusioned about the role of their college experience in their personal and professional lives.

But that is not the HBCU experience as told by graduates and metrics. And this set of metrics would definitively show black college campuses doing the good work of racial balance in admissions, equity between campus labor and consumer groups, and completion rates among all on ethnic groups represented on a given campus.

The gender parity question, not so much. But who’s really counting when several HBCUs already outpace many public PWI flagship campuses in black first-year student enrollment anyway?

The problem with this report and many others like it is that it presents PWI failure on student racial equity as a leading issue of higher education when the real crisis is institutional inequity hampering HBCUs. We’ve seen campuses like Georgia State University explode with black student enrollment and outpace the state in black student admission and graduation rates – all while the campus faculty and executive workforce reflects none of the students’ identity.

This report is a part of the ideological miscalculation that has pushed HBCUs to the brink in the 21st century. The drive for more black access to white campuses has depleted HBCUs, all while the black student migrants seeking opportunities to be more integrated in the “real world” or to “be in a diverse environment” earn degrees and accrue debt while losing the most authentic and rewarding college experience available to them.

It’s the same issue that is clear in the ‘Black on Campus’ journalism experiment, and in Georgia State’s booming black enrollment; the world of our dreams is white remorse, white repentance and individual black achievement on white terms. All in that order. And within this twisted take on black empowerment, Dr. Harper and others produce reports to shame PWIs into enrolling more black students in the hopes of PWIs miraculously developing incentive to do better by them; all while knowing that these schools will never institutionally cure the pernicious side effects of PWI enrollment created by isolationism and micro-aggressions levied by paying and employed campus stakeholders.

You read that right; the answer to black college students’ problems is to pay PWIs for more mistreatment and less representation on campuses which have historically marginalized them, and not attending schools with the qualitative and quantitative proof of being better for them.

Shaming PWIs for black inequity will never be a better option than uplifting HBCUs for their promotion of black opportunity. Even with their present-day success being driven by a racist past, they remain the top-performing sub-sector with the aim of solving America’s racial gaps in health, wealth and achievement through education.

Everybody knows it, but it’s particularly clear when efforts to mask the fact do even more to spread the HBCU gospel.