Bacon's Rebellion

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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