There has been lots of speculation about the future of HBCUs. While some of this has played out in the media, there is also an on-going conversation within this sector about what needs to happen to ensure a viable and productive future. Both conversations are sensitive in nature, saturated with nuance and divergent views concerning which directions are best. There are, however, a few clear environmental signs that demand the attention of everyone concerning the future of HBCUs regardless of one’s current position.
1. Outcomes represent the “coin of the realm”: It is difficult to have a conversation about higher education today without the national degree completion agenda being a part of the discussion. Federal and state legislators have tuned-in and the accreditation community has upped the ante on the kind of evidence required for demonstrating student learning outcomes. The point is that institutional effectiveness and import are more closely tied to the percentage of students who graduate. There does not seem to be an exemption in the two or four-year sector for institutions committed to serving poor, underrepresented, first-generation college students who face serious hurdles on the way to commencement. Innovation and fine-tuned institutional operations aimed at improving student success are no longer negotiable.
2. Delivery systems matter: Enrollment trends have critical economic implications for the viability of most HBCUs. There is now staunch competition for students from all geographic areas and for those with varying academic profiles. There is no natural draw and accessibility matters in different ways today than it has in previous years. Beyond simply being admitted is the question of whether courses and degree programs are delivered in ways that meet the needs of today’s students. Two of the top five institutions producing the highest number of African-American baccalaureates are for-profit institutions. I have to believe that this is a result of non-traditional delivery systems that make them accessible, thereby appealing to a sizable population of underrepresented students in search of an opportunity to earn a degree.
3. Using data and assessment to inform decisions: As obvious as this may seem, higher education, as an enterprise, has not done a particularly good job at systematically collecting data about student performance. I am sometimes surprised by the fact that the same campus that boasts about its award-winning work on the human genome knows virtually nothing about the effectiveness of a program intended to improve persistence among STEM majors. Traditionally, learning outcomes have been assumed and the blame for failure has been assigned to students only. The ability to systemically manufacture sophisticated actionable intelligence about student success relative to institutional polices and practice is the new gold in higher education.
To be sure, these factors are in play for all institutions. HBCUs, however, do not necessarily enjoy the luxury of delaying a response to them. And, the fact that there is nothing to prevent them from being on the frontier is exciting. These environmental factors represent the stage on which the next chapter for HBCUs will play out. The importance of HBCUs cannot be overstated during a time when the nation is worried about whether it can produce enough graduates to satisfy workforce demands. Consequently, the next chapter will not be about whether these institutions are still relevant but how they will make a greater contribution to the nation’s higher education agenda.