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Tiffany Davis: Controversies over commencement and funding misses a larger point about HBCUs

They can be a resource on ensuring success for black students at all institutions, she writes

Editor’s Note: Tiffany Jones is the director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, a national educational advocacy nonprofit that works to close gaps in educational opportunity and achievement. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. The next episode in the third season of CNN’s “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” is about HBCUs, which airs on Sunday, June 3 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

(CNN) —  

Once again, leaders at historically black colleges and universities find themselves in the news responding to a move by the Trump administration. Wednesday, it was Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ commencement address at Bethune-Cookman, where, over a din of boos, she “reaffirm[ed] this administration’s commitment to and support for [historically black colleges and universities] and the students they serve.”

Tiffany Jones
courtesy of the author
Tiffany Jones

Students and alumni had already tried to pressure the school to cancel DeVos’ address because of her later-recanted statement that founders of HBCUs were “real pioneers” of school choice (when, in reality, HBCUs were founded during segregation when black students were barred from attending many white colleges).

But perhaps some of the booing also stemmed from the contrast between her comments about “support,” in light of President Trump’s comments the week before, in which he questioned the constitutionality of HBCU construction financing. On Friday, officials at Texas Southern University in Houston canceled a planned speech by GOP Sen. John Cornyn after strong student protest.

Even though Trump later said he has “unwavering support” for them, he and his staff have on multiple occasions generated controversy when it comes to the history and mission of HBCUs.

These fundamental missteps and misunderstandings matter to HBCUs because of just how much of their funding comes from the federal government. Direct federal investments and student aid make up 25% of HBCU revenue. So, engaging federal policymakers is not something HBCU leaders and their advocates can avoid or ignore – nor should the federal policymakers be taking their responsibility to HBCUs lightly.

As important as funding is, so, too, is student success. And there’s evidence that HBCUs can be a good choice for the students who enroll: At just 3% of higher education institutions, they award 15% of bachelor’s degrees received by black students and about a quarter of bachelor’s degrees that black students receive in critical STEM fields.

A few recent reports further emphasize their role in black student success. Education Trust researchers, for instance, found that HBCUs have higher graduation rates when compared with institutions enrolling similar proportions of low-income students. In addition, research from Gallup suggests that, compared with black graduates from other institutions, black HBCU graduates feel better prepared for life outside of college, are more engaged at work and report higher levels of purpose and financial well-being. In general, the Gallup study suggests that HBCUs provide graduates a better college experience than other types of institutions.

With this track record, HBCUs and their advocates can be a resource on ensuring success for black students at all institutions. Though there has been some progress in recent years, nationally, young black Americans are earning bachelor’s degrees at less than one half the rate of their white counterparts.

In fact, anyone committed to helping more young black people achieve their dreams – from Betsy DeVos to every local guidance counselor – should insist that institutions of all kinds be committed to improving black student success and find ways to hold them accountable for doing so.

One current trend in states is to hold campuses responsible for student outcomes by tying their state funding to student performance. Many HBCU leaders and their advocates have not embraced such policies. Considering a long history of persistent underfunding and graduation rates that fall below the national average, such hesitation is understandable and stems from valid concerns.

And research suggests that colleges may react to an overemphasis on graduation rates not by solving the problem but by becoming more selective and excluding the types of students that tend to have lower completion rates. That should not become a viable option.

What’s clear is that any efforts to link student outcomes to an institution’s funding should take into account the background and needs of the students enrolled and implement strategies like hiring diverse full-time faculty or improving academic advising that will improve student success.

So, wealthy, predominantly white institutions, for example, shouldn’t be applauded for having better student outcomes when they consistently underserve low-income students and students of color. Similarly, campuses that serve large proportions of students of color from lower-income families and those with limited K-12 college preparation opportunities shouldn’t be penalized for having outcomes different from better-resourced institutions.

All institutions should be held responsible for outcomes in ways that account for students’ characteristics and the various challenges that students from different backgrounds must overcome.

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So instead of shying away from discussions of outcomes, HBCU leaders could be a leading voice, suggesting ways to incorporate outcomes that represent the best interests of black students and offering key takeaways that can help students at all institutions. This could include relying on outcomes specifically for underserved student groups, or measures that account for not just graduation rates, but a student’s sense of belonging or well-being — which also speak to students’ experiences and the overall quality of their higher education.

Students turning their backs on DeVos at graduation makes for good headlines, and in this current environment where HBCUs are likely to continue to be under scrutiny, funding should be a top concern. But none of this should blind anyone to the bigger picture facing students of color: making it to graduation day in the first place.