As the president of Clark Atlanta University, Carlton Brown knows the problems plaguing the nation's historically black colleges and universities.Well other than filling a niche in the higher education realm, what should be the product put out by HBCUs? Are they still necessary in the 21st Century? Can they compete at the same level as many of the more mainstream universities in the nation?
Like other public and private colleges, these institutions, known as HBCUs, struggle financially because of drops in endowments, cuts in state funding and increased demand by students for financial aid. They also face unique challenges as black students enroll elsewhere and are recruited by colleges that once barred them.
Brown and five other college presidents spoke Thursday about these challenges and also the opportunities before them as universities work to reach President Obama's goal to have the world's largest share of college graduates by 2020. To reach that target colleges must reach out to students who think college isn't for them. HBCUs have long provided students with a nurturing environment and often teach those who are the first in their families to go to college, Brown said.
"Yes, we're going after the same high-quality students as Georgia Tech and Georgia State, but the beauty of higher education in this country is that there is an institution for everyone," Brown said in an interview. "Part of college is being somewhere other than where students have always been. For some students, we are the largest collection of black students they've ever seen. But some students says they've never seen so many white folks."
When HBCUs opened, they were the only option for black students. In 1960, 65 percent of black students attended historically black colleges. Today, only 12 percent do, although HBCUs award 30 percent of the baccalaureate degrees earned by all black students, federal data shows.
Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, said there is potential to have a greater reach but HBCUs must be more aggressive in setting the country's college completion agenda. The colleges must be "on the offensive" by explaining and substantiating their success, said Kimbrough, who graduated from Atlanta's Mays High School.
To play a critical role several college presidents said they must convince governments and philanthropic groups to invest in their schools.
Historically black schools tend to have lower endowments than other colleges, making less money available for scholarships. This money is critical as the colleges serve many low-income and first-generation students who need more financial aid and academic support if they are to graduate.
My hope is that an HBCUs such as Morehouse can and should compete with other universities and for the top caliper student possible.