Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), “must not just survive but thrive,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told those gathered at the HBCU National Conference in Washington yesterday. Duncan spoke of the enduring contributions HBCUs have made to the country and said that the tremendous historic role of HBCUs must endure as well as evolve.
Historical Role of HBCUs
Too many Americans are unfamiliar with the staggering accomplishments of HBCUs. Most of America’s civil rights giants were educated at HBCUs—Dr. King, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, and Thurgood Marshall.
In our time, Jesse Jackson, Andy Young, Barbara Jordan, Congressman John Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman, and Doug Wilder all earned their degrees at HBCUs.
Legendary artists and authors came out of HBCUs—Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison.
Yet what is most impressive about the HBCU record is not just your famous alumni. It is that HBCUs, working with meager resources, almost single-handedly created an African-American professional class in the face of decades of Jim Crow discrimination.
College Completion Rates
The math here is pretty simple. To reach the President’s 2020 goal, student populations with high dropout rates—especially minority students—will have to exponentially increase their college graduation rates.
This is not just about access—this is about attainment. Nationwide, only about one in four—28 percent—of young black adults have received a college degree.
But we know that African Americans have the highest proportion of adults who have some college but not a degree of any major racial group. Almost 18 percent of African Americans aged 25 years and older—nearly one in five adults—went to college but left without their degree.
That college completion shortfall is both a tragic squandering of talent and an unprecedented opportunity to do better.
So, in the years ahead, we want HBCUs to continue to be known not just for their storied alumni but for leading the way for all institutions in educating and graduating African American college students.
Innovation at HBCUs
I want to be absolutely clear: Support for innovation at HBCUs should be government-wide, and not just from the Department of Education. I’m excited that the Department of Energy awarded $9 million to nine HBCUs in South Carolina and Georgia to develop academic programs that promote minority involvement in STEM fields, especially in environmental management.
And just yesterday, the National Institutes of Health announced it has awarded planning grants to five HBCUs, totaling almost one million dollars in its new NIH BUILD initiative.
Read Secretary Duncan’s entire speech, learn more about HBCUs and follow the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities on Twitter.
Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education