Next week I will visit Howard University as part of a trip to see a number of Baltimore and Washington D.C area colleges. Howard is one 80 historically black colleges in the United States that were recently ranked in U.S. News. The private historically black colleges are diverse in that some are religious, some secular, at least two are all-female (Spelman and Bennett), at least one (Morehouse) is all male. Most of the public schools are located in Southern states. Pennsylvania is the only truly Northern state that hosts historically black colleges. Maryland was a Southern state during the Civil War.

Howard is a research university, the only private one among the historically black colleges. Yet, unlike other private research universities, it was appeared in two rankings. Howard ranked second among all of the historically black colleges when they were ranked together. When the school was ranked against other research universities in the U.S, Howard ranked 135th equal to Hofstra University, a private school with a similar academic mix and George Mason University, the largest public university in Virginia.

Among the public historically black colleges North Carolina A&T and Florida A&M are also research universities. Like Howard, they also appear in two rankings. Among the historically black colleges they ranked ninth and tenth respectively. Among research universities they were ranked Second Tier. Essentially they were not given a ranking.

To me a “good college” needs to retain approximately 80 percent of its freshmen in order to graduate at least half of the class on time. Howard and Florida A&M do this. North Carolina A&T comes close at 77 percent. Among the three schools, Howard comes close to graduating half of a class on time. Their four-year graduation rate is around 40 percent.

Among the smaller schools Spelman, based in Atlanta, is a good college. The freshman retention rate for the class that entered last year was 89 percent. The four-year graduation rate for the students who entered in 2009 was approximately 60 percent. Among woman’s colleges Spelman’s freshman retention was quite close to that Bryn Mawr, one of the original Seven Sisters, as well as a more selective school (40 percent accepted vs. 54 percent for Spelman).

But while Spelman ranked first among the historically black colleges but only 72nd among National Liberal Arts Colleges. The average SAT scores have something to do with this–they’re part of the ranking–and so do the graduation rates. If Spelman graduated its students at the same rate as Bryn Mawr, the school would likely rank higher. Rankings hurt this school, which has a smaller market, women of color, than most other liberal arts schools. But when I consider Spelman relative to its smaller market for students, the college’s performance is quite impressive.

Rankings certainly hurt historically black colleges. But there are only 10, public or private, that retained at least 75 percent of a freshman class, out of all of the schools that were ranked. Those that are private include Spelman, Howard, Hampton, Morehouse, Fisk and Tougaloo. Among those that are public: North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M, Jackson State and Elizabeth City State, all are located in states that have fiscally-conservative governors and legislatures. Of these four, one (Florida A&M) has a board that has placed little confidence in its president while one (Elizabeth City State) was actually threatened with closure legislation last year.

As a college admissions advisor I have to be careful in helping students to consider colleges. I get very concerned when a school loses a high percentage of a freshman class. It could be a tell-tale sign for a number of things:

  • The admissions office had to consider filling the class versus vetting the applications to find students who might fit in with the philosophy and culture of the campus;
  • The incoming freshmen who accepted offers of admission and came did not thoroughly research the college, for example taking an extended visit after being accepted;
  • The incoming freshmen were inadequately prepared to do college-level work and/or did not receive the right advising to help them to succeed;
  • If merit-based aid was tied to academic success, the loss of a scholarship made it less possible for some students to continue at the college;
  • The college raised its costs beyond the means of students who left as well as their families;
  • At schools where a larger percentage of students will be dependent on need-based grants from Federal and State governments legislated changes in eligibility standards have forced students to leave;
  • The college is not in the best financial position if it has to recruit a large number of transfer students, as well as a new freshman class to replace the students it lost; and,
  • The transfer student market for the school is limited to those students who want one of the majors that the school offers, and can transfer seamlessly, without loss of credits, into the major. This will be a serious problem for liberal arts colleges and others that do not offer a large selection of majors.

Take all of these issues combined—they exist at schools other than historically black colleges, as well–with the narrower market for historically black colleges and serious discussions have to happen.

A small number of historically black schools have tried to solve their fiscal problems by recruiting and attracting students who are not of color. West Virginia’s two historically black colleges, Bluefield State and West Virginia State, have become white majority schools. But both schools take advantage of the legal designation as a historically black college to receive Federal funding that they would not otherwise receive. I could imagine that this bothers those who lead or have graduated from schools that are black majority. Sadly, neither of these schools retain more than 60 percent of a freshman class or graduates more than a third of those freshmen on time. It would also be extremely difficult for these schools to raise money to counter a loss of these Federal funds.

But I do not favor closing the poorer performing public historically black colleges as conservatives are apt to do. For one thing these schools have students who are pursuing degrees.

Closure of a school no doubt raises public and private questions about the “value” or “quality” of a young person’s college education. Those young people will have not had the time to build the resumes they need to have the careers that they want. The next problem with closure is that it does not happen fast for those who are there. The most practical course of action would be to help the freshmen and sophomores to transfer and help to graduate the juniors and seniors. This gives more time for resentments to publicly surface. Those resentments are thrust upon anyone who could help any student who is trying to finish up their degree.

In a closure you need to have places for the transfer students to go. For the sophomores it would depend on their intended major, costs and space available. For the freshmen it depends not only on the major but also on space available. The better-performing public schools that would remain open would likely have higher retention rates than the schools that closed. Further, there are likely to be fewer seats available in a sophomore class than there are in a junior class. Admissions offices at colleges that have some degree of selectivity are likely to prefer students who have completed 60 to 64 college credits–and usually the general education requirements for their school’s degree programs–over students who have completed only 30. The likely option for freshmen impacted by the closure of a college: community college, with a possibility for a journey towards a degree that would take more than four years.

While closure is not the wise course of action, a course has to be considered. More articulation agreements with community colleges, especially agreements tied to pre-professional degree programs are one possibility. They would at least strengthen these schools as junior-senior transfer institutions. So would early admission agreements with the high schools near the campuses, especially for the schools that are located in places with a good degree of mobility.

But the more important actions have to focus around innovations in student success. One writer, Ron Stodghill, a journalist, now a college professor at Charlotte-based Johnson C. Smith University, pointed out some examples in his recent book, Where Everybody Looks Like Me, which examined performance, political and leadership issues at several historically black colleges. While Stodghill pointed out the problems, he also covered examples where new college presidents or senior faculty and administrators took steps to make the education their schools offered more rigorous as well as more relevant. For example, Southern University (LA), a four-year school that also grants advanced degrees,  has its own community college. It uses that relationship to improve academic advising, move students into two-year programs when it made more sense, and direct a more seamless transfer process.

It is very difficult for responsible school counselors, as well as independents like myself, to recommend schools that have demonstrated that they cannot retain their students even if the schools are more likely to have students who are more like them. The costs for changing schools have become too high. It would be worthwhile for the leadership of historically black colleges to reach out to our profession for an open discussion on how counselors and the colleges can help each other.



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