Why HBCUs Like Charter Schools

Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund

Historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs) filled a higher-education void for African-Americans during decades of segregation. Today, once-lily white universities now compete aggressively for black students, and HBCUs have been losing market share. In 1977, 35% of black college graduates received bachelor’s degrees from HBCUs. By 2015 the percentage had declined to 14%.

Making the HBCUs’ predicament more difficult, they tend to educate lower-income students, while the most prestigious schools suck up more affluent, better-educated blacks. Stuck with a poorer alumni base, HBCUs find it harder to raise money for scholarships and campus improvements… which makes it a challenge to break out of the rut.

(Virginia has four HBCUs, two public and two private: Norfolk State University, Virginia State University, Hampton University and Virginia Union University.)

Nationally, only 35% of HBCU students graduate within six years, compared to 60% for all colleges. The root problem, says Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund which raises money for HBCUs, is that public schools are failing to prepare their graduates. In a Saturday interview in the Wall Street Journal, he said that in “economically fragile” communities, many low-income students graduate without basic literacy and need remedial classes.

The high school-to-college transition breeds frustration. “When you show up to my college, I’m in trouble and you’re in trouble,” Taylor says. “I can’t  get you through, and the feds are holding me accountable for graduation rates. And you’re frustrated because you feel like you were shafted for 12 years by the secondary school system — and you were.”

“Just because your finish a master’s degree,” says Taylor, “if what you learned in your curriculum was not rigorous enough or relevant, then Silicon Valley looks at you and says, ‘Well, that’s interesting that you have a degree, but it doesn’t work for us. You’re not prepared to do anything.'”

In contrast to black-advocacy groups such as the NAACP, Taylor has become an advocate of charter schools. Lower-income students from major charter networks such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), he notes, graduate from college at rates of three to five times as high as other students.

To ensure a stream of qualified applicants, nine or ten HCBUs have set up their own charter schools. Howard University in Washington, D.C., for instance, maintains a charter school with the idea of exposing students to Howard much earlier in their education life cycle.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have no idea if Virginia’s HBCUs have any interest in affiliating with their own charter schools, but the odds seem long that, if they are so inclined, they will be able to do so any time soon. Virginia’s charter law is so restrictive that only eight charter schools operate in the state, only two of which (both in the City of Richmond) are in black-majority school districts. Here in the Old Dominion, politics dictate that the interests of the public schools take precedence over those of students. Thus, this option for improving the lives of students — and the competitive posture of Virginia HBCUs — is effectively foreclosed.

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7 responses to “Why HBCUs Like Charter Schools

  1. Bacon –

    Johnny Taylor documents very well how affirmative action by so called elite universities too often serves to cannibalize even the best HBCUs. And, if some reports are true, this too often leaves many student’s aggrieved, angered and self-segregating, an understandable attitude reinforced by the multitude of courses taught by critical cultural theorists seeking “to liberate their students from the circumstances that enslave them”. See Frankfurt School generally.

    This of course has been going on since the late 1960s and early 1970s, although reaching new heights in the more recent past.

    Now too it is being reported that the same cultural forces are causing the elites to raid smaller schools of women interested in STEM subjects. This too is often equally unfortunate. The strong smaller schools that actually teach their students intensely in small supportive groups are now raided by the elites that typically don’t focus on teaching as their priority, particularly in undergraduate years, and instead they exploit their STEM students for cheap labor for research of professors pet projects.

    I suspect, but do not know, that this problem afflicts Sweet Brier in Virginia, as only one example, and indeed that it threatens the tradition good undergraduate teaching throughout the nation. Indeed, this trend appears to be just another way that undergraduate college students, here the most promising women, are being exploited by the elites in this country.

    In short we have a system of higher education whose parts are at war with one another.

  2. ” There are “striking deficiencies” in educational opportunities for students in high-poverty Virginia schools, a new report has found.

    Students in high-poverty schools, or schools where at least 75 percent receive free and reduced-price lunch, have less access to core subjects like math and science, lower levels of state and local funding for instructors, who are less experienced in these schools, according to a report from The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a research organization based in Richmond that focuses on economics and policy.”

    http://www.fredericksburg.com/news/education/report-virginia-s-high-poverty-schools-don-t-have-same/article_8f165923-f535-5fcd-b02f-48e4bcd8bb7f.html

  3. JB, the point of your post is the secondary school handicap that routinely gets passed on to the HBCUs of Virginia, and one radical solution to it: involving the HBCU in charter schools that might bypass the public secondary “feeder” schools that do such an inadequate job. And, of course, you end up focusing on Virginia’s impediment to any charter school workaround.

    But this problem, this solution, is not unique to the HBCUs. Indeed, ““Just because you finish a master’s degree,” says [Johnny] Taylor, “if what you learned in your curriculum was not rigorous enough or relevant, then Silicon Valley looks at you and says, ‘Well, that’s interesting that you have a degree, but it doesn’t work for us. You’re not prepared to do anything.’”” That’s a generic problem with higher education.

    The problem that IS unique to the HBCUs is — that they are HBCUs. I know these schools have a long and admirable history. I know they have financial challenges today because, as you put it, “once-lily white universities now compete aggressively for black students, and HBCUs have been losing market share.” Despite the legal and social imperatives of our commitment to color-blindness, these institutions persist; and whether they should or not has been debated for years. Plainly they helped blacks survive our shamefully segregated past, and arguably they have helped smooth the transition out of that past; but at what point will they have become mere ugly bastions of cultural segregation in an integrated America?

    And I am troubled by the implications of continuing State support for HBCUs. It’s not that the State should forego any avenue for reaching out to those low income students who also happen to be black. It’s not even the legal objection that the State should forego its implicit endorsement of a segregated institution — because, indeed, the HBCUs already enroll a nominally diverse mix of students and would love to broaden that mix. Unlike schools solely for women, the HBCUs are not closed to diversity.

    What does bother me is the notion that these students who, after graduation, are going to join the greater, largely white, workforce and its pervasive culture, are encouraged to take shelter from it, in a separate cultural echo chamber, for their primary educational years. Does this bring us any closer to a post-racial world? In this America full of renewed race-baiting hate speech, wouldn’t it be better to break down those islands of identity politics and bigotry through cross-cultural exposure, deliberately, at every opportunity?

  4. I too was struck by the words of Taylor as well as Acbars’ comment: ” “if what you learned in your curriculum was not rigorous enough or relevant, then Silicon Valley looks at you and says, ‘Well, that’s interesting that you have a degree, but it doesn’t work for us. You’re not prepared to do anything.’”

    ……… ” That’s a generic problem with higher education.” ”

    then earlier … ” . “When you show up to my college, I’m in trouble and you’re in trouble,” Taylor says. “I can’t get you through, and the feds are holding me accountable for graduation rates. And you’re frustrated because you feel like you were shafted for 12 years by the secondary school system — and you were.”

    Which is a pretty scathing indictment of the state of education in the K-12 public school system in general and even worse in schools in high poverty neighborhoods where academics are even lower.

    And again – these are not just schools in predominately black urban areas run by black administrators.

    These are also schools in adjacent suburban jurisdictions and rural areas where schools are located in low-income neighborhoods – it is rare that such schools performs well academically – and yet kids DO GRADUATE there and those at the “top” such as it is – do try to go on to college – and it is these kids that Mr. Taylor is primarily referring to that show up – not ready for college.

    The problem is acute at HBCUs but even diverse non-poverty K-12 schools – white and black are not providing all college-bound kids with the basic language and math literacy necessary to learn college level material and the word “remediation” is more and more a part of the conversation.

    The core role of the HBCUs in that earlier segregated era was to provide black kids with a generic College degree that did qualify them for jobs that required “degrees”. That ‘worked” for not only black kids at HBCUs but white kids in regular Colleges also who also just wanted a “degree” as the typical entrance standard for a “good job with benefits”.

    That world – has largely gone away in the 21st century knowledge economy because to repeat Taylor’s words:

    “if what you learned in your curriculum was not rigorous enough or relevant, then Silicon Valley looks at you and says, ‘Well, that’s interesting that you have a degree, but it doesn’t work for us. You’re not prepared to do anything.’”

    That actually makes me wonder how relevant HBCUs themselves are in the 21st century economy separate and aside from them contemplating alliances with “Charter Schools”.

    two big problems – 1. kids not prepared for college and 2. generic college degrees that are not relevant in the modern economy.

    Don’t get me wrong – we DO NEED Liberal Arts -but even Liberal Arts is not possible without core Literacy and Liberal Arts alone – is not enough for the modern economy any longer.

    We’re in competition with the rest of the world on this – and I’m afraid, as a nation, we may be living in the past and falling behind the rest of the world.

    We still have the lions share of the best higher ed in the world – but increasingly – we are seeing foreign students – and foreign workers in our own country at the same time – we have a stubborn entitlement-dependent underclass – neighborhoods served by not-so-good neighborhood schools.

    I’m not seeing how the magical concept of “Charter” is fixing that problem to this point … it seems more of a belief than a real solution – not only for places like Richmond but also nearby Henrico which despite it’s fair number of “good” schools – it has a dozen or so not-so-good schools also.

  5. In large measure, I agree here with Johnny Taylor, Acbar, and Larry all at the same time.

    The various parts of our system of education in this country are at war with one another. Thus the whole of out system of education amounts to less than the sum its parts. That is not the worst of it.

    The tragedy of epic proportions arises by reason of the fact that many of its parts altogether do far more harm to their students, than good.

    In all practical affect, a holocaust of whole generations of our youth has been going on for some time in America. We all have a ring side seat, watching this holocaust while participating in it or doing nothing about it, or actively resisting those who try to fix the massive extermination going on. Its a death spiral we’re in.

    • The only way this is going to be fixed is holistically from the bottom up.

      All of us individually and collectively must put our children first. This includes:

      1/ Their mothers and their fathers
      2/ Their communities, and
      3/ Their schools.

      Their collective task is to protect, teach, and demand performance of their children. Human children are not beagle puppies. Without protection, teaching, and discipline from their family, community, and schools, human children run wild without telos, to no good end.

  6. I don’t want to disparage parents nor communities – there are certainly many, many good ones – but k-6 is where many kids make it or break it. It’s were they “learn” to be with others … to share and collaborate with others – to learn to not steal from others or hurt others… Teachers do yeoman duty in the non-academic arena – for many, many kids whose parents are not up to the task – even parents who think they are but certainly others who never should have been parents in the first place.

    And too many kids fail at having good parents or effective teachers – and end up with a lifetime of entitlement dependency – if they and we are lucky – and much worse as thieves, robbers, and killers as we see – daily in the news these days.

    It’s in these low-income neighborhood schools – precisely where the top-notch veteran teachers are needed and it’s precisely there where they are not and those schools are staffed with newbies and other teachers that are not wanted in the schools where the kids are easier to teach and the parents harder to deal with.

    You find these “bad” schools – not only in high poverty urban schools but in adjacent suburban counties with their own low-income neighborhoods – and ironically – out in the rural hinterlands… which often do not attract highly rated teachers because of low pay and a lack of amenities found in the more urban environments.

    It’s nice to think that all we need is “better parents” or “better communities” to fix these problems but the reality is that low income neighborhoods often lack good parents and they are not good communities either.

    You can’t change either – you have to invest in the kids – so they can grow up and not be like their parents and not live in poor neighborhoods.

    To me – that’s what education is all about.. or should be.. if you can get that kid on a good academic track in k-6 – they have a better than even chance of escaping their circumstances.

    If they don’t make it in K-6 – it’s pretty much over for most and a long, hard slog for the few that do manage to struggle out.

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