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HBCUs narrow the graduation gap for poor black students

Mar 2, 2017

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday moving the Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities from the Department of Education to the executive office of the White House - a move aimed at possibly sending more funding to HBCUs in the future.

The order directs the initiative to work with the private sector to strengthen the fiscal stability of HBCUs, make infrastructure improvements, provide job opportunities for students, work with secondary schools to create a college pipeline and increase access and opportunity for federal grants and contracts, according to PBS.

Trump’s action comes the same week as a new study detailing graduation rates at HBCUs by The Education Trust, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit.

The study, A Look at Black Student Success, found America’s HBCUs do a better job at graduating low-income black students than predominantly white institutions. Study authors identified low-income students as those who qualify for the Pell Grant. According to NPR:

The study compared the graduation rates for schools whose Pell Grant recipients make up 40–75 percent of their student bodies. In this comparison, the average graduation rate for black students at HBCUs was 37.8 percent, compared with 32.0 percent for non-HBCUs.

Black students graduate, on average, at a rate 22 percentage points lower than white students, according to Inside Higher Ed. But the study notes that there is still room for improvement in graduation rates - even at HBCUs:

Among HBCUs that enroll the same types of students, the graduation rates vary widely. Take, for example two peer institutions, North Carolina Central University and Alabama State University. The graduation rate for Black students at North Carolina Central (47.6%) is over 20 percentage points higher than Alabama State’s rate (26%) even though the schools enroll similar types of students. The first-year students on each campus have negligible differences in academic preparation and financial need.

HBCUs enroll approximately 15% of black degree-seeking undergraduates and 20% of first-time, full-time black students at four-year institutions, according to the study. And the institutions are experiencing growing diversity. A 2011 report found Hispanic students made up 3% of the national HBCU enrollment while white students totaled 13%.

Marybeth Gasman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, has conducted research on schools with large minority populations. She told NPR she has found they add significant value to their students' lives:

A lot of schools that might be bragging about their graduation rates typically are accepting more affluent students of all races. But the real challenge, the real work is done when you're going after low-income students and trying to bring them to a new level. And more than likely you're bringing their families out of poverty, which is typically what will happen. You see this a lot among African-Americans and Latinos. You're really changing families' lives.

HBCUs also received acclaim this week from education secretary Betsy DeVos, who faced backlash after touting the institutions as "pioneers of school choice." The institutions were established because African-Americans could not enroll at predominantly white institutions in the South as part of Jim Crow laws. DeVos later made an additional statement in prepared remarks released by her office:

Bucking that status quo, and providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of HBCUs. But your history was born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.