Changing Times For Black Colleges

Inside Higher Ed, April 19, 2007

Two economists have applied an income analysis to the graduates of historically black collegesand the scholars have come up with findings that could be problematic for the institutions or could suggest that they are remaining true to a historic mission.

The report found that the economic gains for a black student of attending a historically black college as opposed to a traditionally white institution changed dramatically between the 1970s and 1990s.

In the 1970s, when many of the most prestigious American colleges were just beginning to actively recruit black students, an economic-driven calculus would have sent a student to a black college. Now, according to the authors, the opposite is true, and graduates of black colleges have seen a significant decline in relative wages over the course of the two decades studied.

In addition, in a separate comparison, the scholars looked at elite black colleges and found significant declines in the proportion of studentscompared to black students at predominantly white institutionswho would pick the same college again, who felt prepared for working alongside other racial groups, and who felt their leadership skills had been developed. (Black college students, however, in the latter comparison were more likely to be engaged in social or political activities.)

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The study was released Wednesday by the National Bureau of Economic Research and an abstract is available here.

The authors of the studyRoland G. Fryer, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, and Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technologywrite that they conducted their analysis with the idea that decisions about historically black colleges should be made on more than on “theories and historical anecdotes.” With the Supreme Court insisting in desegregation cases that black colleges provide a clear justification for their role, and public and private black colleges relying on federal funds (the latter primarily for student aid, not operating support), the authors write that the institutions need to be able to demonstrate their value. They used several longitudinal databases to come up with their conclusions.

On one level, the authors note ways in which their study does not reflect well on the black colleges. During the period covered by the study, the authors note, various measures of pre-college academic preparedness (such as test scores) went up at black colleges, so the relative income declines took place during a period when the opposite might have been expected.

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“Our schools educate students from disproportionately low-income backgrounds, many of whom have attended low-performing schools for their entire lives,” Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, said in a statement. “After more than 30 years of litigation, HBCUs have not received comparable funding to [traditionally white institutions]. The authors’ analysis does not reflect the fact that HBCUs take students from where they are, bring them up to speed, and help them succeed with fewer resources. The authors also do not account for the economic and social costs of not helping underprepared students to get a college education, a role that HBCUs fill successfully more so than other institutions.”

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[Editor’s Note: “The Causes and Consequences of Attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities” can be downloaded for a charge here. The abstract is available on that same page.]

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