Why the ‘More With Less’ HBCU Narrative is Dead

HBCUs continue to promote and suffer from a broken economic, and philosophical model of support.

Richard Ducree — ESPN Images

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Commissioner Dennis Thomas writes in The Undefeated today about institutional deficits created by HBCU alumni failing to support black colleges through sending our children for academics and sports. Using athletics as a backdrop, Thomas walks back through history on the long list of Hall of Fame players, iconic coaches, and championship-caliber programs which benchmarked the golden era of HBCU enrollment and productivity.

Why do I give that brief history lesson? The point is this: We have been doing more with less all of our lives. That’s in our DNA, and the same can be said about our presidents, chancellors, faculty and staff. They, too, didn’t have what they needed to be great researchers and scholars. They didn’t have all they needed to have a great institution, but they made a great institution anyway.

Thomas’ narrative sounds good and familiar to scores of HBCU alumni, but as the words race through your conscience with the auto-pilot of cultural shaming, it is important to deconstruct a lot of the misguided guilt which he, and many of us, buy into in an unconscious effort to promote and propagate institutional failure.

Guilt Trip 1 — “If you venture to an institution’s development office and ask for a list of alumni who have given $1,000 or more, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than 5,000 alumni who have done so. That’s hard to hear, but it’s fact.”

Essentially, Thomas sets the bar at 5,000 alumni giving $5 million as a standard of philanthropic buy-in. Last year, Spelman College had nearly 6,000 alumnae give $2.4 million, at a giving rate of 32 percent. At North Carolina Central University, more than 3,400 alumni gave $2.4 million to the institution. Between 2014 and 2016, HBCUs received 13 individuals gifts of $1 million or more.

No one would classify these numbers, and the dozens of other HBCU philanthropic success stories as a failure, or numbers reflective of poor, apathetic black people neglecting our schools.

In fact, given the data which says African-Americans are nearly 30 percent less like to own a home and annually earn about $50,000 less after earning a college degree — the two key metrics of wealth building in this country — its not a stretch to say that the wealthiest of the race are doing pretty well by HBCUs and in support of our less fortunate.

But the costs of higher education have increased by so much, and the impact of black poverty so profound, that the money we can afford to pay now represents a much smaller portion of what is necessary to keep a school open, and to graduate the students therein — especially for HBCUs, the majority of which are in the vice grip of classic southern lawmaking, tinged by racial animus and ruled by economic depression.

Thinking by definitions and standards set by white people with money will never work for our interests or advancement. Believing that having less is equal to doing less, in this country, isn’t a complete, or culturally responsible take on black life and survival.

Guilt Trip 2 — “Remember, our demise was predicted by some when HBCUs were founded. However, not only did we survive, we flourished. But it’s not all gloom and doom. We aren’t without solutions.”

If more black professionals earning more wealth is thriving, then yes, HBCUs flourished. But where are the metrics for institutional success that stack up against predominantly white institutional peers? Is it adding new buildings? Because research shows that black colleges are charged more for bond issuance than white institutions with similar financial outlook.

Is it the notion that HBCU grads are more satisfied and connected with their college experience than black graduates from PWIs? Because more black students are attending community colleges and PWIs than HBCUs, even with enrollment increases at black colleges nationwide.

Is it the fact that HBCUs do more to increase diversity in the STEM fields than any other institutional type? Because black graduates are still overrepresented in industries which yield some of the lowest median earnings.

The question is not if we work and operate as victims without solutions, but in making real assessments of how effective our work and solutions can be.

Guilt Trip 3 — “We hear the argument all the time: Athletes need to go to a larger institution, or a majority institution, to get exposed to the higher level of coaching and facilities. I submit to you, if you have the ability and can play, it doesn’t make any difference where you come from. That’s been proven. That’s not up for debate or argument. So, you can take that argument off the table. With these Taj Mahal facilities, the bottom line is: If you can’t play, those facilities are not going to help you be a player.”

If this argument is true, then why should any HBCU compete at the Division I level of the NCAA? If our budgets can barely sustain membership without guaranteed games, if the trade off for TV rights and minimal exposure is the annual shame of leading the story on APR failures and sanctions, if HBCUs have never competed for Division I national titles in revenue-bearing sports, but regularly do so in Division II football and men’s and women’s basketball, why does this logic not apply for conferences and competition?

The SIAC and CIAA are national leaders in attendance, and in resonance with fans in the social media sphere. The CIAA has the nation’s third largest conference basketball tournament, behind only Division I stalwarts, the Big East and the ACC.

If we can compete and fans are paying attention at a more affordable, less problematic level of college competition, staying in DI isn’t going to help us become a stronger collection of conferences — Celebration Bowl or otherwise.

Guilt Trip 4 — “In the end, it simply is a matter of our own heritage, culture, believing in each other. And if we can send our best and brightest back to HBCUs, we will able to generate some significant return on our investment. This is where we start.”

HBCUs may be struggling today, but if black people didn’t believe in them, invest in them or support them in some measure, they would’ve closed 20 years ago when it first became clear that the MEAC and SWAC would never compete for national championships, that black schools would never have the scholarship money to offer to black students in great numbers, that we never would have the dorms and facilities to attract the best students of all races, and that the south would never change its stripes or its funding priorities for black folks.

In 2010, HBCUs set a record for their all-time collective enrollment with more than 326,000 students — about 10 percent of the more than 3 million black students who enrolled in college that year. Between 2011–13, at the height of changes to the federal student aid Pell Grant and PLUS Loan programs, total HBCU enrollment fell by more than 23,000 students, largely due to the inability of families to pay the tuition costs which, three years later, continue to price black folks out of higher education.

Thomas, like most HBCU advocates, means well. But he and all of us have to build the proper context around the culture we may be slow in creating, while trying to survive a culture built upon black stagnation and oppression since 1776.

We do give back. We do send our students and we do advocate for the progress of HBCUs. Just because it isn’t easy to see, or is commonly defined through white contexts, doesn’t mean that we aren’t successful, or at least trying to be.