Why America Needs Its HBCUs

The president of Howard University argues that “it is a danger to the national interest to not invest in these institutions.”

Kristoffer Tripplaar

A question that leads most conversations about historically black colleges goes something like this: The purpose of black colleges was clear before Brown v. Board of Education, but now that black students can attend any college, why are these schools still necessary?

A few statistics give a rather clear answer. Despite the fact that black colleges (often referred to as HBCUs, or historically black colleges and universities) account for just 3 percent of four-year nonprofit colleges, their alumni account for roughly 80 percent of black judges and 50 percent of black lawyers and doctors, and their students account for 25 percent of black undergraduates who earn degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Even so, many of the institutions are struggling financially. Bennett College, an HBCU for women in North Carolina, recently launched a successful  flash-fundraising drive to fight to retain its accreditation, which was ultimately rescinded anyway. (The university filed a lawsuit against its accreditor and retains accreditation while the case works its way through the courts.) The institutions often struggle to marshal the so-called transformational donations that other institutions receive, and public HBCUs, in particular, have been historically underfunded by state governments.

But the sector is not a monolith. Some institutions are private and have fewer than 1,000 students; and then there are the institutions such as North Carolina A&T, a public historically black college in North Carolina, with more than 11,000. On Tuesday, during the The Atlantic's Education Summit in Washington, D.C., Wayne Frederick, the president of Howard University, one of the nation’s most storied black colleges, spoke with me about why people still question the relevance of these institutions, what HBCUs can do to advocate for themselves, and, in light of a recent controversy involving white people walking their dogs on Howard’s campus, how gentrification is affecting the black college in the nation’s capital. The conversation that follows has been condensed for length and clarity. You can watch the full discussion here.

Adam Harris: In light of the statistics [about how essential HBCUs are to black achievement in America,] why do people still question their relevance?

Wayne Frederick: Because unfortunately they probably don’t know the data that you just pointed out. The question isn’t why [HBCUs] still exist; the issue is really, how excellent can we be? We are an essential part of the fabric of higher education because of the contribution we make to diversifying many fields. Clearly, the outcomes from the HBCUs speak for themselves. So what we have to do is make sure they’re as strong as possible so they can fulfill and continue to fulfill that role as strongly as possible.

I’ll give you two data points to further that argument: The National Science Foundation has this study that looks at the past decade. The question was: Who was producing African American undergrads who go on to get STEM Ph.D.s? Howard University was the number-one producer, and the top-10 schools were HBCUs. [Howard] produced 220 in that period of time studied. Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Yale produced 221. The endowment of those four schools—I think the market is doing a little bit better today based on some tweets—so the endowment of those schools is probably $90 [billion] to $100 billion, and Howard’s is $750 million. So, out-punching your weight class is really the hallmark of HBCUs.

Harris: I’m going to circle back to the question of funding in just a minute, but you were talking about being more excellent. What does it look like for HBCUs to be more excellent?

Frederick: What’s necessary is first to really find areas where we can have the biggest impact and make sure that we do that extremely well. That does require some focused funding in particular areas, but as I mentioned to you before, we have to think a bit out of the box. Miles College, for example, is a small college in Alabama that has Farsi as one of its strengths. Think of our intelligence agencies: I’m not sure how many employees of color we have, and I certainly don’t know how many we have that speak Farsi, but I’m sure that could be very useful to the intelligence community. Then you combine that skill with cybersecurity education and you have a winner. So finding where we can differentiate ourselves is going to be key.

And then when you get to an institution like the one that I’m running and you look at the fact that in 1978 there were more African American males who applied to medical school than in 2014, and Howard University is the number-one producer of African Americans that go on to medical school, the country has to invest in that for us to have better health outcomes. You want to have people who are culturally competent taking care of the population, and you want disparities to close because really, that’s where we spend our health-care dollars. The fact that the maternal mortality rate for African American women is as high as it is partially because you don’t have as many African American physicians taking care of them, or at least participating in the overall ecosystem of health that takes care of them and makes their issues a prominent source of concern.

Harris: One of the things that differentiation requires is the funding to do it; look at Bennett College—a place that had a rush to raise $8 million in 50 days—but over that same time you had more than a dozen non-HBCU institutions that received $5 million donations on their own. So, with what HBCUs are producing, what is preventing large-scale charitable fundraising?

Frederick: Part of this is historical. If you look at the ecosystem around HBCUs, our grads give back in other ways that are not necessarily financial. They tend to go back to lower-income parts of the United States—or their home countries—and they tend to give back in spades in service. If you look at graduates of Morehouse School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, and Howard School of Medicine, those graduates are more likely to serve in underserved areas. That means that their income levels are going to be lower as a result; and there’s still significant income inequality and discrimination in what African American women would get paid compared to what a white male would get paid. And then when you look at unemployment rates, it’s still almost twice that for African Americans than it is for the rest of the population. So what that means is that the actual amount of dollars that they can give back themselves is a bit suppressed.

We, as in the HBCUs, have to make an argument to the broader society as to why we are important, and to allow people to see the fact that though they may not have attended an HBCU, or they may not be somebody who is African American or comes from a circumstance where they may not have had all the opportunities, why it’s important for these institutions to be strong and to thrive. That’s where we have to make the argument.

Harris: Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a $50 billion fund for HBCUs and other MSIs (minority-serving institutions). You talked a bit about the historical underfunding of the institutions; do you think it’s a federal and state responsibility to address it?

Frederick: I have to admit that I’m not usually of the proclivity to suggest that you need the federal and state support, especially for private institutions. In this circumstance, though, I do think it is a responsibility because the diversity of what the 102 HBCUs are providing is so strong that the federal and state governments have an interest in seeing them thrive. [Take] the issue of black doctors as an example. Or if you look at black dentists: Forty percent of the black dentists in this country are produced by two schools—Howard and Meharry. So as far as I’m concerned, the federal government should take an interest in making sure that those schools thrive so that we can boost that.

The other reason is because there’s an outsized burden that you’re putting on these institutions. I’m a surgeon; I trained at Howard. Howard has probably produced more African American women surgeons than any other institution in this country. And since 1970, we’ve probably produced 50 to 60 of those young women. You think about that in a country of 300 million, for one institution to do that and that’s the largest number for any one institution, is a problem. What happens if Howard goes away? All of a sudden we take a crisis and we turn it into an extinction in terms of seeing certain faces in certain fields. So I would think federal and state governments do have a responsibility to do that.

Then when you put it in context of where that funding is now: We have the largest endowment of all HBCUs at $750 million. The institutions that we’re competing with for students are in the Ivy League, and you’ve got Ivy League schools with endowments between $20 billion and $40 billion. If they take 5 percent of their endowment and put it into operating expenses, which is what most of our endowments do, they will be spending $2 billion. With $2 billion, you run my institution with $750 million of operating revenue; you double my endowment with another $750 million; and the other $500 million is gravy; you probably build five buildings. That’s just to put it into context, what spending 5 percent of their endowment in one year would do to Howard, and Howard is at the extreme in terms of financial resources of all the HBCUs. It is a danger to the national interest to not invest in these institutions.

Harris: Let’s switch gears and talk about the town/gown relationship. Howard is in an interesting position where, as D.C. gentrifies, you still have this legacy institution there. How do you manage that relationship as the area around Howard gentrifies?

Frederick: When I became president, I had a meeting with the [Advisory Neighborhood commissioners], the faculty, students, and staff of Howard in the boardroom of the university. I did that every month to make sure everyone was educated about why this 150-year-old institution was there in the first place. Sometimes in our society we just assume that people are going to move into this city, move into this neighborhood, see this university there, and just assume great things. And that’s just not the society we live in. Most of those people would move, take the train, and never even walk on that campus or pick up the news and figure out that this place has produced more black physicians than any other place in the country. So you really have to have an interaction; that’s one.

Then I think we need to look at some of the gentrification differently. I’ve recently been in a discussion with the city about potentially moving Howard University’s hospital to the St. Elizabeth’s campus, and building out our health-sciences complex with the four health sciences—nursing, pharmacy, medicine, and dentistry—around there. That way, you put 1,100 to 1,200 African Americans there who can interact; it could create jobs for the people in that neighborhood. You have 170,000 citizens there and you have no acute-care hospital where a woman can deliver a baby. You have two grocery stores.

We talk about gentrification, but the subplot there is a racial issue, and we unfortunately leave that elephant in the room and talk around it by putting the word gentrification around that elephant. But the truth of the matter is, we should be looking at [the question of]: How do we empower people in that neighborhood so that they can raise their income levels and raise their quality of life?