How viable are historically black colleges and universities?

By: Charlie Nelms, Ed.D.

With increasing frequency, when people in my friendship circle discover that I am a retired HBCU chancellor, they want to know three things. First, since white colleges and universities no longer have racially restrictive admission policies, are HBCUs still necessary? Second, given the vast array of higher education options available to black students, how viable are these institutions long-term? Third, by continuing to function as HBCUs, are these institutions engaging in racism? After all, my friends suggest, there would be a national outcry if there were institutions referring to themselves as Historically White Colleges and Universities. While my colleagues are sincere in raising these questions, I must admit that at times I’m surprised by the naïveté of the questions and would prefer to not respond. But being the ardent HBCU advocate that I am, I dare not remain silent.

Since each of the foregoing questions are complex and require significant unbundling, the focus of this blog is on what I consider to be the most salient of the three questions, “How viable are HBCUs long-term?” Perhaps the most important starting point is to acknowledge that HBCUs are not a monolithic group of institutions. They are just as different from each other as any other constellation of institutions, e. g. land grant colleges, religious schools, research institutions, community colleges, catholic colleges, liberal arts colleges, or tribal colleges, among others. The common denominator for any these institutions is their mission, and so it is with HBCUs.

Based on my experience as an HBCU graduate and chancellor, combined with more than four decades of advocacy and philanthropy, I have concluded that the viability of HBCUs are driven by the collective impact of 11 critical variables.

1. Leadership stability and effectiveness. The rhetoric aside, HBCUs that cannot attract and retain experienced, visionary, passionate and effective leadership at the presidential and cabinet levels are less viable than those that can. Institutions that are prone to appoint executives who preside rather than lead are doomed for failure.

2. Fiscal solvency. There is no substitute for fiscal solvency — either you are or you aren’t — Institutions that are not fiscally solvent, cannot attract and retain well-prepared students, committed faculty and staff, nor garner philanthropic support from alumni, foundations or corporations. No one wants to invest in an institution whose financial records are in such disarray that they cannot be audited in a timely manner. Auditors cannot be blamed for the incompetence of fiscal administrators or their staff.

3. Enrollment stability. It’s a proven fact, institutions that cannot attract and retain students are not viable. Further, the key to attracting students is in direct proportion to an institution’s ability to deliver high-quality academic programs and services that students need for academic success. The significance of an institution’s promises are only as good as the institution’s capacity to deliver. Students and parents can see through the hype.

4. Persistence and graduation rates. The best measure of an institution’s effectiveness is whether students succeed in achieving their educational and career aspirations. Irrespective of the reasons, institutions that graduate less than 50 percent of their students in six years may survive but they will not thrive. There is a difference.

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