WASHINGTON – Historically black colleges and universities are expected to play a crucial role in improving the nation’s educational attainment levels by 2020, but they are likely to face some hard truths in the process. Speaking to a group of educators and policy analysts here Thursday, the man leading the White House initiative on HBCUs said he’s mining data that may show both what’s wrong and what’s right with these institutions.
“We are not going to run from whatever news there is, good or bad,” said John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the initiative’s director.
Wilson, formerly an administrator at George Washington University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was among six panelists featured Thursday at an Education Sector discussion  devoted to improving success for minority-serving institutions. While he did not discuss specifics about his office's data collection efforts, Wilson suggested a broad range of data on student success rates at HBCUs was needed to make better informed policy and funding decisions.
To fulfill President Obama’s goal of achieving the world’s highest graduation rate by 2020 , there is no question the 105 HBCUs in the United States will have to play a significant role. But in a sea of data already available, Wilson and others say it’s still hard to answer basic questions about success rates, including the performance of first-generation college students, many of whom are members of minority groups.
The data that are available do not always put HBCUs in the most favorable light. The Associated Press analyzed the six-year graduation rates of 83 four-year HBCUs last year, finding that just 37 percent of black students attained degrees within six years. More striking than the low completion rate was the fact that the national college graduation rate for black students is actually 4 percentage points higher than that of HBCUs collectively, calling into question the long-held notion that HBCUs are better at graduating African Americans.
The Associated Press report was met with consternation from some HBCU presidents, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund argued  that the federal data used to inform the report missed a crucial segment of transfer students who populate HBCUs.
Asked about graduation rates Thursday, Education Sector panelists suggested that funding levels could not be discounted as a significant drag on student success at HBCUs.
“A lot of that [graduation] rate …. is grounded in money, lack of money,” Wilson said.
Some HBCU officials say they still encounter hundreds of academically eligible students each year who drop out of college because their financial need cannot be met with Pell Grants and other aid. The vast majority of HBCUs have small endowments, so there isn’t a pot of money to dip into when financial challenges arise.
“The capacity is not there. It’s an issue of dollars,” said Charles Smith, vice president for student affairs at South Carolina State University.
Smith and others are optimistic about a recent boost in Pell Grant awards, along with $2.55 billion allocated to HBCUs  and other minority-serving institutions as part of a recently passed budget bill. Even so, challenges remain. Of the approximately $120 billion the federal government gives to higher education through aid and research dollars each years, HBCUs receive only about 4 percent, Wilson said.
“That’s low,” he said.
Improving funding for HBCUs and other minority institutions, however, will require a change in tone and philosophy, Wilson said. Wilson, who holds degrees from Morehouse College and Harvard University, has been talking tough  since Obama appointed him nearly a year ago , challenging HBCUs to prove their worth through hard data rather than just appealing to the better angels of those who control the purse strings.
“We’re not asking for this investment because we want you to do the right thing or we want you to have a good heart,” Wilson said.