The HBCU Value Proposition

Archived Information

The HBCU Value Proposition

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the 2014 National HBCU Conference "HBCUs: Innovators for Future Success"

September 23, 2014

Thank you, President Harvey, for that introduction—and thank you for your outstanding career of service to Hampton, to HBCUs, and to our nation's students.

I'm always glad to get the opportunity to address the National HBCU conference—it's a major priority for me and our department. Today, I'm not here just to celebrate the remarkable legacy of HBCUs but to talk about the indispensability of HBCUs to our nation's future.

I savor my visits to HBCUs. I always come away inspired by their essential, unique role in serving the needs of minority students.

Two weeks ago, I was at Spelman College for the start of our annual back-to-school bus tour. I met with some extraordinary students from Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta University who are preparing to become teachers.

When Spelman was founded in 1881, it was the first historically black college for women in America. Its mission was to prepare teachers to teach former slaves and their children.

Back then, few would have imagined the opportunities that these smart, committed students have in front of them today. And it's telling that what we were talking about was the vital importance of young graduates teaching in high-need schools.

So yes, we have come a vast distance as a nation. And yet we still have so far to go to ensure true equality of opportunity and a diverse workforce in our society and our public schools.

HBCUs must continue to play that critical role in creating equal opportunity. And they must continue to play a critical role in meeting President Obama's North Star goal in education—that America regain its place as the nation with the highest college attainment rate in the world.

At past National HBCU conferences, I've talked about the storied authors, artists, and civil rights giants who were educated at HBCUs. Today, I want to do something a little different. I want to talk about the value proposition of HBCUs in 2014 and in the years ahead.

I reject the idea that with the end of Jim Crow segregation, HBCUs are either no longer needed, or cannot truly be at the forefront of innovation in higher education. Let me tell you why I think both of those claims are wrong.

On the first claim—that HBCUs are somehow no longer relevant with the integration of our nation's universities—I want to make two points.

First, it is now widely understood that America faces a demographic and economic imperative to dramatically expand college access and attainment, or we will risk losing our prosperity and economic leadership in the world.

If we want to strengthen families, if we want to strengthen communities, if we want to increase social mobility, the best way to do that is through increasing educational opportunity.

The math here is straightforward. Earlier this month we passed a major milestone. For the first time in our nation's history, a majority of our public school students are minority students.

Please take a moment and think about the profound implications of that demographic shift—and how it will transform both higher education and the job market.

To reach the President Obama's North Star goal, our nation, and our institutions of higher education, will have to not just increase but exponentially increase the college graduation rates of students with higher historic dropout rates.

That demographic imperative will create a premium for colleges and universities with deep experience in educating students of color. Over the next few years, I believe HBCUs will in many respects become more essential, not less so, to meeting our nation's educational and economic goals.

The second reason why HBCUs remain so necessary is that they still have an outsize role in preparing students to meet urgent national priorities in STEM fields, in filling teaching jobs, and in uplifting boys and men of color.

Few people outside the HBCU community recognize the disproportionate impact of HBCUs in STEM fields and teaching.

Even though our nation's 105 HBCUs make up just three percent of colleges and universities, they produce 27 percent of African Americans with bachelors' degrees in STEM fields. And in 2011, HBCUs conferred one-fourth of the bachelor degrees in education awarded to African-Americans.

We know that creating a more diverse teaching force—one that includes many more teachers of color and many more male teachers—is the right thing for all of our students. And we know it is the necessary course for our nation.

Unfortunately, for far too long, our country, our communities, and our colleges have done a poor job of both responding to the needs of boys and men of color and building upon their tremendous strengths.

Thankfully, HBCUs are a notable exception. They enroll 23 percent of all African-American male undergraduates—almost a quarter of black male undergraduates.

It's imperative that we start uplifting boys and men of color, as President Obama is seeking to do. High school and college graduation rates must go up, and incarceration rates must go down.

And here again, HBCUs can help show the way—and many of you are already implementing programs worthy of national note.

Now, the second claim that critics sometimes make of HBCUs is that since they were under-funded institutions created in response to Jim Crow, they are not positioned today to be at the forefront of innovation and globalization in higher education. I absolutely reject that critique as well.

I know HBCUs can pioneer innovation and international education. I know that because I've seen it firsthand at the HBCUs I've visited.

At Hampton University I saw its cutting-edge Proton Therapy Institute for treating cancer. President Harvey's vision there is remarkable.

At Morgan State, under President Wilson's outstanding leadership, the university formed a groundbreaking partnership with the Universities Space Research Association.

Morgan State landed a $28 million contract—its biggest federal contract in history—to develop critical expertise on climate issues and atmospheric science.

I've been to Xavier University, led by an icon, President Francis, who is retiring at the end of the year.

Dr. Francis is a living legend, and has been an extraordinary leader for HBCUs and a mentor to many of the presidents and other leaders in this room.

Can I just pause for a moment and ask for a round of applause to recognize President Francis's legacy of leadership, courage, and selfless commitment?

As many of you know, under Dr. Francis's leadership, Xavier awards more undergraduate degrees in the biological and physical sciences to African-Americans than any other university in the nation. It sends more African-Americans to medical school than Harvard.

And while we're at it, I want to recognize a second superstar president who is retiring, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. Please give her a round of applause.

Dr. Tatum has been a pioneering leader in so many areas. And like Xavier, Spelman has excelled when it comes to STEM and innovation. On a per-student basis, Spelman produces more African-American graduates who earn doctorates in the STEM fields than any college or university in America.

And this wave of innovation is spreading throughout the HBCU community. I was pleased to hear promising reports from Jim Shelton about last year's HBCU Innovation Summit at Stanford University.

That UNCF initiative, supported by our department and the White House Initiative, aims to build more connections between HBCUs, their students and faculty, and Silicon Valley.

Finally, our department has been absolutely overwhelmed by the outpouring of high-quality applications for First in the World grants from both the MSI and HBCU community.

The First in the World competition is specifically designed to encourage innovation in higher education. We received about 500 applications for what will be around 25 awards totaling $75 million.

We all wish we could fund many more applications—and I will seek additional support for even more awards next year from Congress. Folks on the Hill need to see, and understand, the work that you and many other institutions are doing.

As you know, up to $20 million of that $75 million is set aside for MSIs. But I anticipate that more than the $20 million will go to MSIs when we announce the awards later this month. And I expect great things from these grantees to help us accelerate innovation.

Now, contrary to the critique that I hear sometimes of HBCUs as provincial institutions, HBCUs are in fact rapidly embracing cultural exchange programs and the globalization of higher education.

HBCUs recently formed a groundbreaking partnership with the Chinese Ministry of Education to provide 1,000 scholarships for HBCU students to study in China between 2014 and 2017.

At Fayetteville State, Chancellor Anderson's commitment to international education even extends to the creation of dual-degree exchange agreements with five universities in China.

Fayetteville students can now take a course in educational psychology and measurement taught concurrently by video to students at Baotow Teachers College in Inner Mongolia. That's globalization made real!

Under the great leadership of George Cooper and Ivory Toldson, the White House Initiative on HBCUs has also established an exchange program with Brazil that 45 HBCUs have joined. Last fall, the Brazilian government sent almost 350 Afro-Brazilian students to HBCUs, primarily to study in STEM fields.

President Wilson of Morgan State summed up well why these programs are so important. "Students today are waist-high in the water of globalization," he says. "To be the leaders [our] nation demands, they will need to speak the critical languages and understand the history of culture and nations different from their own ... We do not live in silos anymore."

His vision is compelling. Our students, whether they are at HBCUs or other institutions of higher education, can't be confined by traditional boundaries of geography, language, or culture. They don't—and can't—live in silos anymore.

Now, despite the high value proposition of today's HBCUs, I recognize that many of you face real challenges in supporting innovation, entrepreneurship, and research.

Far too often, endowments are undercapitalized. Faculty salaries are low. And facilities are in need of repair.

Across higher education, far too few students arrive on campus truly ready for college-level coursework. The need for remediation and academic support is huge.

And so I want to speak briefly to the concerns that many of you have shared about PLUS loans, sanctions on cohort default rates, and our plans to develop a college ratings system.

We have expanded our efforts to consult with the HBCU community, and your guidance and partnership have been of enormous benefit.

When I spoke here last year, I apologized for our poor communications on updating and changing the definition of adverse credit for Direct PLUS loan eligibility.

Since then, a negotiated rulemaking committee was convened and benefitted greatly from the thoughtful guidance of Dr. David Swinton, the president of Benedict College, and Dr. George French, the president of Miles College.

Now, with an overwhelming number of positive public comments on the draft rule, we are on track to publish a final rule by November 1 so students benefit from these changes in time for the next semester. We would never have gotten to this spot without the leadership, wisdom, and hard work of Dr. Swinton and Dr. French—so thank you!

In the same vein, I'm pleased to say—and all this information will be officially public tomorrow—that because of the tremendous effort we made together, no HBCUs will be subject to statutory default rate sanctions this year.

The hard work of lowering default rates remains, and some institutions remain troublingly close to the line. But we will continue to work with you to address this critical issue with urgency.

We've also received absolutely invaluable input from HBCU presidents on the design of a college ratings system.

We approach the design of a college ratings system with great humility. We have now met with more than 4,000 students, parents, college trustees, presidents, faculty and administrators, researchers and advocates in more than 100 sessions around the country—including sessions with HBCU presidents.

And while I understand HBCU concerns about a college ratings system, I want to allay those fears. Our ratings system will make fair comparisons among schools, and it will recognize crucial differences among student populations.

I absolutely endorse what President Kimbrough of Dillard has said about the ratings. He has likened the ratings to judging a diving competition, where one has to take account of the degree of difficulty of the dives.

We are planning for a college ratings system that will take account of the degree of difficulty that many institutions, including HBCUs, face in educating significant numbers of under-prepared, disadvantaged students—and preparing them to compete successfully in an intensely competitive world against students with every advantage.

I don't think there can be any doubt about President Obama's intentions for the college ratings system. He has said, and I quote, that his "firm principle [is] that our ratings have to be carefully designed to increase, not decrease, the opportunities for students who face economic or other disadvantages."

Ultimately, I believe the President's vision for a college ratings system will actually illuminate the value of effective and improving HBCUs. We will put out our initial draft proposal in the coming months and get lots of additional feedback before we move to a final draft.

I want to close by talking for a minute about steps the Administration is taking to reduce the cost of college and student debt—and I know both problems are of great concern to HBCU presidents. You have to worry not only about expanding enrollment but also about empowering students to get to graduation day and to walk across that stage.

The Obama administration has funded the biggest expansion of college access at the federal level since the original GI Bill, with Pell revenue to HBCUs up almost 40 percent since the start of the Administration.

Of the many programs the administration has introduced, expanded, and proposed to increase access and curtail student debt, I want to mention one important program, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which has yet to receive the attention it deserves. It can provide critical benefits for many HBCU students.

Through Public Service Loan Forgiveness, any full-time employee who works a decade or more for federal, state, or local government, a public charity or private foundation, or a public service organization, like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, can have any remaining federal student loan debt forgiven—erased—after ten years of qualifying payments.

The definition of public service jobs is broad—graduates qualify for forgiveness after ten years full-time as a teacher, police officer or town manager, social worker, a nurse or accountant at a public hospital, a librarian at the school library, or an early childhood educator.

I'm fortunate to be joined here today by some fantastic partners and colleagues from the Administration who will talk about the value of public service loan forgiveness for HBCU students.

We have Richard Cordray, the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the Director of the Peace Corps, and Wendy Spencer, the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

We've all agreed to commit to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness pledge, created by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

That means we have pledged to talk to our employees about their options for student loan forgiveness, to help them document that they work for a public service organization, and to check in annually with employees to make sure they stay on track.

For employees with too much debt, and not much income, public service loan forgiveness can save thousands of dollars. It's a great recruiting tool for public service—and I hope you'll educate students about it.

So thank you again for having me here today.

And I am now going to turn this over to my friend, Richard Cordray, to talk about the pledge, and tools to promote public service and reduce student debt.