A new report from the United Negro College Fund's Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute offers ideas on how K-12 systems nationwide can look to historically black institutions as models for student success.
The report gives examples from its member schools for how intrusive advising, cultural curriculum infusion, and college preparation standards can revitalize educational outcomes for elementary, middle and high school students.
On its surface, the report gives publicity to private HBCUs with good results from programs based upon (and probably funded out of) support for the uniqueness of the HBCU mission. But the report also creates questions for how such models can be implemented at different levels of educational delivery, and the dramatically different factors impacting how results could be measured.
Suggesting that students would do better with more attentive teachers, culture-affirming programming and higher standards is easy. Recommending how those strategies can be implemented is far harder, and far more valuable for information billed as research.
There isn't an exact universal template that HBCUs use to accomplish sector-wide results in the same areas. Each school adapts its mission, its resources, and its objectives to create and meet goals for things like graduation rates and career readiness. Admissions goals work in tandem with academic strengths and financial resources to target specific areas that can be improved or grown.
Diverse K-12 districts with different human, technological and cultural issues and charged with the objective of simply graduating students, can't easily take the same strategic positions.
Those differences raise the question of how public K-12 education could even advocate for new strategies and pipeline by way of district-level requests. The influence of federal, state and even local influences from parents and municipal lawmakers on K-12 policy usually dictates areas of emphasis for policy-making; from redistricting to school lunch menus.
HBCUs also face political influences, but not those which can change the rules on how they operate and who they directly serve. That big difference sets K-12 and higher education apart in how success is measured; colleges are held responsible for how many of their students go to graduate school and enter the workforce, how much they earn in their careers, and how much debt they accrue in paying for school.
K-12 districts have none of those responsibilities. Enrollment doesn't make or break their workforce, they aren't responsible for fundraising and they aren't held responsible for the upkeep or expansion of programs and facilities.
Researchers and executives at UNCF know K-12 and historically black colleges may serve a similar profile of students at varying levels of learning, but they are leagues apart in what they do and what they are. Sadly, this assumption may lead some to believe that compiling a report like this gets them in the news and creates the appearance of being hard at work to lead with innovative ideas on the value of HBCUs without any real measure of impact.
This is part of a disturbing trend for UNCF. Over the last three years, the vaunted advocacy organization has lost nearly $200 million in revenue while producing a diverse set of headline-grabbing research reports and press conferences designed to attract empty attention in the name of HBCU support.
In 2017, UNCF produced an economic impact report based upon incomplete data that showed an entire sector of 100-plus historically black institutions has less financial steam than the 17-school University of North Carolina System.
Two years later, UNCF produced a 'State of the HBCU' press event outlining a largely-dramatized view of accreditation as an uneven and singularly-pressing threat to the existence of HBCUs, despite accreditation being the only tool the public has to know which of our schools face dire financial struggles.
Last fall, UNCF claimed credit for the bipartisan passage of the FUTURE Act, which sustains funding for HBCUs over the next decade -- a legislative outreach initiative which involved multiple HBCU advocacy organizations and HBCU leaders working to whip support for a bill which was all but guaranteed to earn the president's signature upon passage because the White House mandated for the bill to get done.
These stunts, while important for HBCUs to earn public recognition, are placing UNCF in lockstep with a faux-research and promotional opportunist who makes big money off of empty HBCU advocacy; Rutgers University Professor Marybeth Gasman. For decades, Dr. Gasman has curated respectable earnings and recognition as a keen observer and chronicler of the most obvious benefits of HBCU function and administration.
Dr. Gasman built a model of exposing how HBCUs educate and train poor students, survive in the face of socioeconomic threats and political danger, and how predominantly white institutions could better serve minority students by following the examples of HBCUs. Her perspectives on racism, sexism, and resources have always been steeped in white privilege, but she earned and maintains a coalition of HBCU support because of her ties to private funds and understanding of how to buy silence.
Dr. Gasman profits from peddling common HBCU knowledge to audiences who have never had a passing thought about HBCUs, and because of it, much of the HBCU sector rejects her as one with any credible authority on our culture or circumstances. But UNCF is adopting her model of public persuasion and friend building without the audience of well-intentioned, privileged HBCU novices.
UNCF is using her tactics on an audience of legitimate experts, and that cohort of advocates isn't buying it. In the face of UNCF member schools losing accreditation or threatened with the same, private higher education on the verge of collapse, and the organization facing its own financial struggles, many faces of HBCU influence are beginning to ask the same question with different words and levels of concern when it comes to the legendary advocacy operation.
"They aren't helping themselves and they aren't helping the schools. Why exactly is UNCF still around?"