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The nation’s historically black colleges and universities need to assume a far more active role in the national push to get more students to complete their degrees, a group of HBCU presidents said Thursday. "We need to be much more aggressive in taking the lead in setting the agenda," Walter Kimbrough, president of Arkansas' Philander Smith College, said at a news conference in Atlanta during a seminar organized by the Southern Education Foundation. "We are going to have to make a break from some of our historical ideology and looking at ourselves in a defensive posture."

Greater participation of HBCU's in the larger public debate will become only more urgent, many speakers noted, because of the shifting demographics of the student body. Kimbrough cited preliminary 2010 U.S. Census data showing that the majority of babies born in the U.S. over the past two years were not white. "By 2019 there’s not going to be one racial majority in this country," said Kimbrough. And, several speakers said, with nearly one in five black college students attending HBCU's, these institutions have a lot to contribute to conversations about how these students can succeed in higher education. But, even as HBCU's need to increase their expectations of students and welcome the push for accountability, several speakers lamented the funding environment. "You have these two trains running," said David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, in Maryland. "You have the college completion goal, and we’re not investing in the students we need to achieve that goal."

That trend is holding true in higher education more broadly, said Carlton Brown, president of Clark Atlanta University. "We want to regain a position from which we have fallen, but we haven’t addressed how we got there in the first place," said Brown, who added that a college education had been slowly redefined over time as an individual benefit rather than a broader societal one. "When you redefine it to an individual benefit, the real consequence is an erosion of national capacity," Brown continued. "How we got to this position was through an investment of the government and private entities. How we lost it was a disinvestment of government and private entities."

The press conference, which included six HBCU presidents, covered wide ground. Several discussed the importance of connecting more to each other, to other private and public colleges, to K-12 education and to the wider public. Others talked about the need to advocate for continued support for Pell Grants (some presidents said that 70 percent of students at their colleges were Pell-eligible), and about the communal and historical value of their institutions.