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Robert Traynham

Robert Traynham

This month, tens of thousands of graduates will receive their degrees from Historically Black Colleges and University’s across the country. These graduations mark a significant milestone achieved not only for the graduates, but in many cases for the families as well.

There are some in the educational and political space that argue that HBCUs are no longer needed. With access to community college at record levels and with state and private four-year institutions loosening their acceptance rules, many make the point that HBCUs; the bedrock of the Black community for generations has become impotent and obsolete.

With Generation X’ers, along with millennials entering into interracial relationships, along with growing comfortable with an African American first family in the White House, even some Blacks — of the younger generation — question the need for HBCUs. Record numbers of African Americans have been accepted to ivy league universities, and other prestigious private secondary schools, many with full scholarships, so it’s understandable that some may come to the conclusion that HBCUs are no longer needed.

I strongly disagree. As a product of an HBCU, and as one of the first in my family to go to college, the HBCU experience is like no other. I should know having gone on to get a master’s degree at a majority white college and now matriculating toward a Ph.D at another majority white college, the differences between attending an HBCU and a majority school are vastly different.

Because of the size of HBCUs – which for the exception of a handful in the south are relatively small, the classes are much smaller, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The smaller sizes virtually guarantee a personal and unique experience between the student and the professor. Consider this: if you were in a class of 10-15 students and you did not turn in your homework, or was having problems keeping up with your peers, the professor at an HBCU would most likely pull you aside, ask you what the problem is and personally work with you to resolve your academic issue. At a much larger school, that might not be the case.

In addition, there is a greater chance that the professor would be an African American and could relate to the student’s academic situation. The primary reason for this is because HBCUs typically have lower-than-average graduation rates, which is not surprising given the large number of low-income, often academically underprepared students they serve.

In other words, HBCUs often take students that show promise, but that other traditional colleges may not accept because of demographics. But demographics aren’t destiny. Within the educational sector, there’s significant variation in how many entering freshmen go on to earn degrees. We should be reminded that the over 100 HBCUs in this country have always served students who not have been given a chance anywhere else.

According to the Department of Education, over 80 percent of HBCU students are African American, and almost 70 percent come from households where their household income is so low, that they qualify for Pell Grants.

Given that the income disparity between the rich and poor has grown even wider and with a record amount of graduates leaving college in enormous debt, HBCUs are needed now, more than ever, for it’s very clear that although we have come along way with parity in higher education, there is a long way to go.

Robert Traynham, a former staffer to U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, is vice president of communications for the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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