Can Boards Ensure a Healthy Future for Historically Black Colleges?

By Alvin J. Schexnider    //    Volume 21,  Number 6   //    November/December 2013

Given the nation’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity, how well will higher education serve tomorrow’s students? The government projects that in five years, minorities will make up more than half the youth under age 18. Racial-ethnic minorities will account for 53 percent of the youth population under age 18 by 2025 and 60 percent by year 2045.

Are American institutions—and their leaders—ready for the diversity that new generations of students will represent? Which types of institutions are best prepared to educate those students and what can they teach others? And what role should governing boards play?

Historically, higher education has struggled with how to serve a diverse nation. As part of those efforts, states, as well as churches and other private organizations, created institutions with the explicit mission of educating African Americans beginning at the end of the Civil War; some institutions were created as late as the 1960s. Many of these institutions were for decades the only route to a higher education for African Americans prior to desegregation efforts beginning in the late 1960s. That was particularly true for women, whose families sacrificed so that they could enter teaching, nursing, and other professions to bolster their families’ economic security.

Indeed, many of the nation’s 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, as they are generally known, have histories as innovators, particularly when it comes to serving low-income and first-generation students. Today, although the vast majority of African-American college students enroll at majority institutions, many of those colleges and universities are producing African-American and other graduates using the intensive academic-support models that originated at HBCUs before desegregation. These include summer-enrichment programs in areas such as mathematics, science, and reading, as well as peer-mentoring programs to help students become acclimated to college life and academic expectations.

But HBCUs are facing unprecedented challenges, and boards must take responsibility for helping their institutions meet those challenges. M. Christopher Brown II, currently president of historically black Alcorn State University, offered a decade ago this sober assessment of HBCUs in Black Issues in Higher Education: “The time has come for black college presidents and stakeholders to hold a private and honest conversation about the state of their institutions—their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Of particular focus in this meeting must be the role and composition of boards of trustees—the fiduciary agents and policy-making unit of the college.”

Opportunities and Threats

Today, HBCUs make up just 3 percent of all American higher education institutions, but they educate 16 percent of African-American students. Furthermore, HBCUs are a major producer of African-American graduate and professional students. According to Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Nelson Bowman III, director of development at Prairie View A&M University, in A Guide to Fundraising at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Routledge, 2011), of the top 21 undergraduate producers of African-American science Ph.D.s in 2009, 17 were HBCUs. In addition, HBCUs are helping to educate an increasingly diverse America. In 1950, African Americans made up 100 percent of the enrollments at HBCUs; today, HBCUs increasingly serve populations of Asian, Hispanic, and white students, who now account for around 20 percent of their students.

Yet many of these institutions are struggling with declining enrollments as desegregation has opened other options for African-American students and as the competition to admit bright African-American and other minority-group students has grown. HBCUs are also dealing with diminishing financial support. The nation’s continuing economic and employment problems and fewer dollars for support of higher education in general pose major challenges for all of the nation’s colleges and universities, but they are especially troublesome for HBCUs. Black institutions historically have educated students from lower-income families, and many of their graduates have entered careers that have not brought the highest financial rewards, limiting institutional fundraising.

Even the wealthiest and most vaunted of the HBCUs are facing serious fiscal challenges, including significant layoffs and tuition increases, as well as cuts to financial aid and course offerings. For example, Morehouse College, arguably one of the more selective HBCUs, furloughed without pay its entire faculty and staff during this year’s spring break because of financial challenges arising from changes in the federal Parent PLUS loan program upon which many of its students rely.

Of course, funding difficulties amplify other challenges. When money is tight, leaders must deal with immediate financial problems, rather than having the freedom to think strategically about the future. Also, when financial support is in short supply, institutions must struggle to retain well-qualified faculty, have fewer resources to devote to personalized attention to students, and cannot invest in up-to-date technology, to mention just a few problem areas.

These difficult times call for effective board and presidential leadership of HBCUs and require boards to ask tough questions. By grappling with such questions, boards can play a vital role in maximizing the potential of HBCUs in the 21st century.

Uncomfortable, but Necessary, Questions for Boards

1. Should HBCUs continue to exist?

In an era in which the majority of African-American students are enrolled in mainstream colleges and universities, it is not surprising that some observers have questioned the continuing need for HBCUs. This is not a new topic, but it is one that gets little attention beyond impassioned rhetoric.

It is true that before the 1960s, 75 percent of black college students attended HBCUs. These institutions are no longer the largest provider of black college graduates: The University of Phoenix, a for-profit and largely online provider, now lays claim to that title. Since the 1960s, desegregation has had a discernible effect in that African-American students today enjoy options to enroll that did not exist before. Also, the availability of various types of financial aid—scholarships, grants, and loans—has significantly expanded access to a college degree, and African Americans have taken advantage of those opportunities to enroll in a wide range of institutions.

Yet one of the most-cited strengths of American higher education has been its wide diversity of institutions—and religiously affiliated institutions, colleges devoted to the arts, polytechnics, and other specialized institutions have proud histories of contributing to that diversity, just as HBCUs do. Looking ahead to the needs for postsecondary education among the nation’s rapidly increasing racial and ethnic minority groups, I see no reason that HBCUs should not continue to play an important role. These institutions have a long history of providing opportunities to first-generation and low-income students, the ones most likely to benefit from personalized instruction and a student-focused environment.

In fact, while I have raised this question regarding HBCUs’ existence, it is really the wrong question. Rather, the better questions are those that follow, which focus on enhancement of HBCUs rather than on their potential demise.

2. Are HBCU boards ready to govern?

As we have seen from recent leadership turmoil at institutions such as the Pennsylvania State University, a board can create risk for its college or university when it falls short of providing, or outright fails to provide, effective oversight of the institution’s operations. The board chair and the president, for example, need to communicate effectively and interact often. Except for board meetings, too frequently the board chair and the president talk to each other only in moments of crisis.

The need for boards to govern well is particularly crucial for HBCUs, which are buffeted by the same challenges that other institutions face, but additionally have struggled against a tradition of discrimination that majority institutions have not had to deal with. Thus, engaged and visionary boards are needed to enable HBCUs to navigate a landscape that demands effective leadership and, especially, strong financial and business acumen.

Boards must be willing to ask themselves difficult questions about their own performance:

  • Do we have the right members for what the institution needs? Do members have the expertise—for example, in fundraising—that institutions currently require? Or in strategic planning or in effective external communications?
  • Are board members selected through means that are in the best interest of the institution, rather than based on the interests of individual trustees? Are they willing to support the institution financially? Do they have the time, energy, and knowledge to be helpful?
  • Is the board able to act collectively, or does it bend to the will of a few individuals?

These can be difficult issues, but many HBCU boards may need to develop plans to bring in new members who can provide particular expertise that currently is lacking.

3. How can boards ensure greater student success?

Frankly, it should be the job of everyone associated with an HBCU to see that as many students as possible graduate—and this includes board members. Now might be a perfect time for boards to encourage the institutions they oversee to develop strategies for helping students to graduate in, say, three years, rather than four or six years. Competency-based learning and other strategies may be particularly valuable at HBCUs.

Unfortunately, however, the evidence doesn’t suggest that boards have made retention and completion real priorities, despite the fact that President Obama, the College Board, and influential funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation all have argued that increased graduation rates should be a national priority. Graduation rates at HBCUs hover around 30 percent. And while this blunt number doesn’t tell the whole story of HBCU successes, given that many students are first-generation college students and less than ideally prepared, it should serve as a reminder to boards that much more can and needs to be done.

Of particular concern is the continuing gap between the graduation rates of white and Asian college students and those of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Boards need to play the essential fiduciary role of making retention and completion an institutional priority.

And the responsibilities of boards do not stop there. Board members should help ensure seamless articulation, getting students who begin their academic careers at two-year colleges into and through baccalaureate programs. During the 2009 academic year, 45 percent of black college students were enrolled at two-year institutions, according to the 2010 Digest of Education Statistics. More black college students completing associate’s degrees could lead to more transfers to four-year colleges and, ultimately, to more bachelor’s-degree recipients. Expanding articulation agreements between HBCUs and community colleges would be mutually beneficial and is but one approach that a governing board can support to help shape the future of an institution. Tidewater Community College, for example, has been hugely successful in boosting the number of graduates with associate’s degrees who easily transfer to four-year colleges and universities in Virginia. These include Norfolk State University and Virginia State University, two public HBCUs.

HBCUs also should reach even deeper into the educational pipeline. Just as many majority institutions have done, they should develop closer ties to high schools and develop remedial programs so that students are better prepared when they enroll in college. Regrettably, these and other strategies are underutilized despite their enormous potential to strengthen HBCUs.

4. Can boards ensure the effective use of technology?

Is technology the positive disruptive innovation that it has been promised to be? While many people suggest that it has terrific potential to reshape higher education in some beneficial ways, technology, as it is currently cast, promises progress in other ways that are antithetical to HBCU missions and values. That is, massive open online courses (MOOCs) that can enroll 100,000 students are not about personalized care and instruction, or about attending to the student as a whole person—important hallmarks of many HBCUs. Although statistics indicate that dropout rates from such courses continue to be high, the current discussion about MOOCs and other forms of technology can distract HBCU trustees from some of the questions they should be asking. Four possibly helpful questions about technology include the following:

  • What is the role of online instruction in the mission of an HBCU, given the fact that for-profit online universities such as the University of Phoenix and Ashford University are the leading producers of black college graduates?
  • Can technology be used to create greater student success? Can strategies such as competency-based education and “blended learning,” which use both traditional and online teaching methods, help HBCU students, particularly those who might have earned some college credits but still lack degrees?
  • What are the costs and drivers of technology?
  • In short, how can technology be leveraged to advance the mission and values of HBCUs?

If board members are not discussing such questions, they need to get started. Some black colleges (Texas Southern University, Florida A&M University, and Hampton University) are active in online education but more needs to be done. Online education is a costly undertaking, and given the financial challenges confronting many black colleges, a shifting of resources to accommodate strategic choices very likely will be necessary.

5. How can HBCUs build better partnerships?

As states face seemingly insoluble budget problems, it becomes more difficult to cope with the residual effects of a dual system of higher education—majority and minority—in states where these segregated systems existed. In some states, it is common to find a majority college and an HBCU within commuting distance of one another, sometimes duplicating courses and programs and competing for students and public funding. This has continued in some cases despite long-standing federal lawsuits and plans aimed at forcing the desegregation of the dual systems and eliminating such duplication. In North Carolina, for example, five public and six independent HBCUs coexist with several public majority universities. Some are in the same metropolitan area.

This situation is not sustainable for black colleges and universities. The inability of states to adequately support all of their public higher education institutions means that much is at risk. Without hope for new streams of funding, boards face difficult choices related to supporting their institution’s mission.

One important strategy must be to construct more new relationships and partnerships between institutions that share different missions. For example, Morehouse University has a partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Virginia State University and the Virginia Institute of Technology are partners in a project in Africa.

An informed and engaged board should confront this reality by engaging the president and other institutional leaders in a reexamination of the college’s mission and vision and consideration of how partnering can advance them rather than dilute them. This also presupposes board members with political and negotiating skills—in other words, with enough clout to somehow make the majority institutions and their supporters in the state legislatures take HBCUs more seriously. And it underscores again why HBCUs need to have the right people on their boards.

Similarly, it is in the enlightened self-interest of HBCUs to partner with community colleges, where appropriate, particularly since two-year institutions usually offer workforce-development programs that lead to jobs upon degree completion (for example, jobs in nursing, dental hygiene, engineering technology, and information technology). The fact that the current economic climate has caused some four-year college and university graduates to enroll in community colleges to acquire skills for employment underscores the wisdom of HBCUs partnering with two-year institutions. Again, this is a potential growth area for black colleges that is underutilized. Finally, HBCU boards should also consider similar efforts to engage in new partnerships with business and industry.

6. How can HBCUs be more accountable?

Governing boards are ultimately accountable for their institutions, and some have not taken seriously enough their responsibility to ensure the delivery of adequate educational quality. At its June 2012 meeting, the regional accrediting agency for many southern states withdrew accreditation from one HBCU and issued warnings to five others. (The majority of HBCUs are in the South and are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.) That should serve as a wakeup call. Boards too often are not involved in the continuing work associated with educational quality and accountability. Instead, as recent cases show, they often jump into the fray only after negative evaluations.

HBCU boards can and should be continually monitoring institutional quality and working hard with campus leaders when early warning signs exist that could later put accreditation at risk. A board that creates policies requiring accountability throughout the institution is likely to avoid these kinds of problems. Among HBCUs, and also many majority institutions, the most frequently cited accreditation issues are related to finances and institutional effectiveness. Boards play essential roles in both of these areas through the leadership, expectations, and monitoring they provide.

Accreditation issues are not insoluble. Governing boards have an obligation to ensure compliance with accreditation standards by: 1) having a complete knowledge of those standards and the time required to meet them, 2) making certain the president and senior leadership direct the available resources to building educational capacity, and 3) guaranteeing that campus leaders understand and address issues related to financial resources and institutional effectiveness, given the population of students they are admitting.

7. How can effective leaders be recruited and supported?

The most important decision a board makes is the selection of a president. At the same time, it is also crucial for the board itself to possess the kind of foresight and expertise that will allow it to determine what qualities and attributes the institution requires both today and a few years down the road. To what extent are boards hiring “forward-thinking presidents,” as one recent report on HBCUs suggested?

Boards need to recruit and support leaders who have the capacity and willingness to lead. But some critics contend that too many searches go on in secret and wind up recycling many of the same people as presidents. Some have suggested that greater use of search firms might help bring in needed new perspectives and expertise. Regardless of whether outside professional help is possible for financially pressed institutions, now is the time for boards to seek out new types of individuals to provide leadership for the future, such as former legislators, graduates who are successful in high tech industries, and other business leaders.

Fundraising is also extremely important at underfunded institutions such as HBCUs. Are boards searching their networks to identify people who have successful track records in this area? Are they ensuring that their newly appointed leaders can quickly develop the skills, knowledge, and infrastructure to raise needed support? Are they taking advantage of workshops offered by professional associations?

The Work Ahead

Serious new conversations cannot begin soon enough, and it may be particularly timely for the boards of the several black colleges that are facing sizable challenges—such as being without presidential leadership or facing accreditation problems—to undertake bold new strategies. Under the best circumstances, leading a college or university calls for exceptional talent, experience, skill, and stamina from boards and their leaders. Black colleges have special challenges, and consequently, the demands on boards and presidents are substantially greater.

That is why black colleges must be especially thoughtful and intentional in assembling governing boards that are equal to the task. Let’s renew this conversation about board leadership and engagement now—and start the hard work immediately.

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