A need for strategy and investment in HBCUs

Recently, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) released a new report titled Top Strategic Issues Facing HBCUs, Now and into the Future. The report draws upon two sources: a survey conducted by AGB and a recent gathering hosted by the organization.

ADVERTISEMENT
The report identifies seven pressing issues that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) need to tackles in the coming years, if not already. These include: declining enrollments and their value proposition, educational quality and degree offerings, student success and completion, finances and affordability, infrastructure, federal and state policy, and governance and leadership. The report is directed at presidents and boards and does an excellent job of communicating salient issues in a practical, straightforward manner.

The report brings to the surface many issues that are imperative to the future of HBCUs. However, there are times when it needed more nuance. For example, the authors claim that enrollment at HBCUs is decreasing — and this is true at some HBCUs — but overall enrollments at HBCUs are not decreasing. Yes, only 11 percent of African-Americans attend HBCUs, which is a much lower percentage than we saw 20 years ago. But a larger number of students are attending college and as such, the percentage attending HBCUs is smaller, but the raw number isn't. Currently, roughly 330,000 students are enrolled in HBCUs. Where we see the most significant change is in the socioeconomic status of HBCU students, rather than overall enrollment. In the past, a range of students of various socioeconomic strata attended HBCUs, but today 84 percent of HBCU students are attending on Pell Grants and nearly 95 percent are on financial aid. More affluent students are attending majority institutions. Of particular note, the AGB report points out the growing numbers of Latino students attending HBCUs — a trend that will surely increase enrollments overall as this trend is cutting across all institutions.

I was pleased to see the AGB report mention the need for enhanced infrastructure at HBCUs; however, I think that those surveyed missed the mark somewhat. Yes, there is a need for increased technology and deferred maintenance is a profound problem on HBCU campuses, but the infrastructure that needs the most emphasis is in three areas — areas that can transform the HBCU campus — given new demands for accountability and production. These areas are fundraising, grant procurement and institutional research. If investments and enhancements take place in these three areas, the entire campus will be lifted. Fundraising mechanisms have been struggling for decades at all but a few HBCUs (e.g., Spelman College, Claflin University and Hampton University) and would benefit from an infusion of infrastructure funding from the federal government. Having stronger alumni giving, stronger endowments, technology and staffing in the fundraising area would help HBCUs across the board — in the areas of enrollment, retention, faculty recruitment and development, and future fundraising. HBCUs have also struggled with the procurement of both private and public grants due to a lack of infrastructure in the grant writing and grant management area. Oftentimes, federal grants go unapplied for by HBCUs — even when there are earmarks for these institutions — due to short staffing in the grants area. An investment in this area could serve as the foundation for future research, better practice, and relieve HBCU faculty members from large teaching loads. Lastly, the area of institutional research is highly important and deserves investment, especially given the recent focus on outcomes-based funding. In order for HBCUs to demonstrate their "value proposition" as the AGB report calls for, they must have strong institutional researchers collecting data on student success as well as impediments to success. Good data enable HBCUs to make smart decisions related to students, faculty, finances and their future. In addition, good data can be used to tell the institutional story in more effective ways, attracting both individual and private funders.

Overall, leaders of HBCUs and those interested in their HBCUs would benefit from reading AGB's new report as it nicely outlines those issues that are essential to the future of these historic institutions.

Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.