They’re no longer the only option for black students, but the country’s historically black colleges and universities brag that they provide a supportive environment where these students are more likely to succeed.
That, though, is not necessarily true.
An Associated Press analysis of government data on the 83 federally designated four-year historically black institutions shows that 37 percent of their black students finish a degree within six years. That’s four percentage points lower than the national college graduation rate for black students.
Historically black colleges and universities educate one-quarter of the nation’s black students but produce an outsized number of future black graduate students and leaders, and that group is becoming distinctly female.
One major reason: the struggles of black men. Just 29 percent of men at historically black colleges and universities complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, the AP found, and the schools award twice as many degrees to women as to men.
A few historically black schools, such as Howard University in Washington and all-female Spelman College in Atlanta, have much higher graduation rates, exceeding the national averages for black and white students. But others are clustered among the worst-performing colleges in the country. At 38 historically black colleges and universities, fewer than one in four men who started in 2001 had completed a bachelor’s degree by 2007, the data show. At Texas Southern University, Voorhees College, Edward Waters College and Miles College, the figure was less than 10 percent.
Women are outperforming men across education, and many institutions that are not historically black struggle with low graduation rates. Also, the rates don’t account for students who transfer or take more than six years.
On 17 historically black campuses, there are two women for every man. At a few, the ratio is 3-to-1. Women have probably outnumbered men at historically black colleges and universities for most of their history, but the proportion has been rising gradually, the AP found - from 53 percent in 1976 to more than 61 percent now.
”I don’t think any of us have put our finger on exactly why this seems to be exacerbating,” said Norman Francis, the longtime president of Xavier University.
Some black schools are working hard to boost graduation rates - and succeeding. Researchers say that proves failure isn’t inevitable - but also means it’s fair to ask tough questions of schools that are not improving. Even some within the tight-knit black-college community say the schools bear some responsibility. They say too many historically black schools have grown content offering students a chance at college but resisting the hard work to get them through the education process.
”I think HBCUs have gotten lazy,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. “That was our hallmark 40, 50 years ago. We still say ‘nurturing, caring, the president knows you.’ That’s a lie on a lot of campuses. That’s a flat-out lie.”
Glancing around her classes at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis and in the stands at basketball games, sophomore Velma Maclin has noticed something odd. Most of the “Big Men on Campus” are women.
”The ladies pretty much run the yard,” she said. Several male friends recently became discouraged and dropped out. She has little sympathy. She works the overnight shift at FedEx Corp. and said if she can stay in school, they can too.
Some joke about the advantages of being a man on a historically black campus.
”You have so many beautiful women around you [that] you get to see and so many to pick from. The net is real wide,” said Eric Jefferson, a senior at North Carolina Central University in Durham, which is two-thirds female.
Although women are doing relatively well, the sex ratio also weighs heavily on social life.
”It’s sad to say, but in the African-American community, it’s hard enough for women to get along without the issue of men,” said Bridgette Alexis, a LeMoyne-Owen freshman from Springfield, Mass. “You throw a small percentage of guys into the picture, and women who are looking and hoping to have boyfriends and relationships, and there’s not enough for everybody to have one. So that just makes the situation worse.”
Why do so many men drop out? Money is the reason heard most often. More than six in 10 students at the historically black colleges and universities that the AP analyzed get Pell Grants, which go mostly to students from families earning less than $30,000 a year. The faltering economy is hitting these students hard; Fisk University in Nashville has lost 11 percent of its enrollment since August.
Another reason is preparation. On average, black students are less prepared for college - and black men even less so than black women. Also, the best black students are now being recruited by majority-white institutions. At Edward Waters, virtually every student takes developmental courses - essentially to finish the high school education they never fully received. Only then can they start progressing toward a college degree.
To explain the particular struggles of men, educators point to a range of cultural factors that affect black men everywhere, but which are especially visible at historically black institutions. Educators also describe a constant battle against two poisonous ideas: that black men can’t succeed, or that if they do they are somehow less than genuine.
Tyshawn Johnson, 20, a junior education major at Claflin University in South Carolina, said it’s discouraging to see so few male faces on the campus, which is two-thirds female.
”When [men] come to school they think they’re never going to make it,” he said. “They start out and when they don’t think they’re up to snuff, they just quit. And that’s why females will always dominate the college ranks.”
There’s no silver-bullet strategy for boosting graduation rates. But persistence helps.
Elizabeth City State University, a public historically black school serving a low-income corner of North Carolina, tries to identify who’s struggling and throw every available resource their way. The best professors teach introductory and developmental courses. Mandatory sessions help students correctly apply for federal financial aid. When students drop out, the university calls them to find out what went wrong and to try to persuade them to return.
The result is a graduation rate - about 50 percent - that substantially exceeds those of peers with similar student profiles.
Some historically black schools have a growing recognition that some strategies need to focus specifically on men.
Last semester, Philander Smith College established mentoring programs for men and aggressively recruited them. Some are simple: Students who came from homes without fathers never learned to tie a necktie, said Mr. Kimbrough, the president, and were embarrassed not to have one during chapel. So the school teaches them how.
Graduation rates have improved from the teens to near 30 percent.
“There’s still this idea that guys come to college, and if you need help, you don’t ask for it. To me, that’s the No. 1 barrier,” he said.
“A lot of students are coming with issues students didn’t even think about 30 years ago,” Mr. Kimbrough said. “Our jobs have changed. I think we have to be much more intrusive.”
The United Negro College Fund, which represents 39 private historically black colleges and universities, said on its Web site that the “average graduation rate at [historically black schools] is higher than the average graduation rate for African-Americans at majority institutions” - a claim that is contradicted, both for historically black institutions and United Negro College Fund members, by the AP’s findings. After inquiries from the AP, the organization removed that statement.
Karl Reid, the college fund’s senior vice president of academic programs and strategic initiatives, said the group is working with researchers at Morehouse College, an all-male historically black school in Atlanta, to find ways to help more black men. It hopes to increase black male enrollment 20 percent at its member schools over the next five years, and to improve overall graduation rates by 10 percent.
”There seems to be a groundswell that we’ve got to get this right,” Mr. Reid said.
“Some schools get it,” he said, but “the urgency varies.”