By Julianne Malveaux
I recently became president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. It is one of 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and one of only two focused on the educational possibilities and aspirations of African-American women. I like to describe Bennett as an oasis where African-American women are educated and celebrated. But it takes money to educate and celebrate.
Like most HBCUs, my school is fiscally fragile. When our computer server went down recently, estimates to fix it veered into the five figures. Ouch! To pay for it, I had to decide what other maintenance had to be deferred. To be sure, many small colleges have fiscal challenges that come with small endowments and limited support. But the challenges at HBCUs are especially acute. In just the past decade, several schools have lost accreditation or have closed. There will be no doors shut at Bennett on my watch.
I often hear the question, “Does a post-integration America really need HBCUs?” The answer is a resounding yes. Sure, these schools were founded mainly because African-Americans were not welcome in majority institutions. But HBCUs are a critical pillar of the higher education infrastructure:
– HBCUs represent only about 3% of our nation’s more than 4,000 colleges and universities but produce more than 10% of blacks who earn undergraduate degrees each year.
– HBCU students also are more likely to attend graduate or professional school than blacks who graduate from majority institutions.
– Though HBCUs mainly serve black students, nearly 20% of our students are from other races. These graduates walk away with a cultural competency that others pay big dollars for in diversity education.
– While 44% of students at non-HBCUs utilize federal loans, a whopping 78% of HBCU students have such loans. At Bennett, 98% of our students receive some form of financial aid.
Despite the best efforts of our financial aid team, many students drop out because they can’t afford the $20,000 for tuition, room and board (a bargain compared with many other colleges). Each young woman who cannot return to school because of money represents an individual tragedy as well as a collective tragedy. Can we really afford to lose one eager mind when we’re in competition with the rest of the planet? HBCUs are an important part of the nation’s higher education landscape, and the energy, vitality and promise of our institutions outweigh any challenges. We do more than our share, with fewer resources, to transform young people into 21st century contributors. If one wonders whether HBCUs are relevant and necessary in today’s world and deserve the funding to thrive, talk with one of our graduates.
Julianne Malveaux is also an economist and author.