Sometime in the next few months the Digital Learning Lab that I manage at Howard University will survey the websites of the 105 officially designated historically black colleges and universities, just as it has done in previous years, in order to determine which HBCUs are offering online degrees that are based on credit courses that deliver at least 80 percent of their content via the Web.
The higher education media have interpreted our previous reports as showing that HBCUs "lag" non-HBCUs in their production of online programs -- which is true.
The media have then explicitly stated or strongly implied that this "slow" pace was "bad" and that HBCUs should produce more online degrees at a faster pace -- which, IMHO, is a highly counterproductive value judgment.
Contrary to the torrents of hype about how online programs will save higher education that have filled the media in the last year or so, especially in the wake of the MOOC tsunami, online courses -- i.e., courses that deliver more than 80 percent of their content over the Web -- and online degree programs aren't good enough for everyone... yet.
Please note the qualifiers "good enough" and "yet." Even the best-designed online courses still require students to have higher motivation, a greater capacity to study alone, better time management skills, stronger fundamental math and language skills, and stronger study skills -- e.g., organizing notes during reviews for homework and tests, extracting correct interpretations from reading texts, listening to audio, viewing video presentations, etc. -- than do face-to-face or blended courses.
These prerequisites for online success will surely fade in the coming years as adaptive e-learning technologies enable online courses to be tailored to the prior knowledge, aptitudes, and learning styles of individual students, and as social media and other support tools become as effective as office hours and face-to-face tutorials. But at the present time colleges and universities should actively discourage students who lack these prerequisites from taking online courses and actively encourage them to take blended or face-to-face courses.
Given their historic commitment to providing opportunities for higher education to black students who have been academically handicapped by circumstances beyond their control, HBCUs should deliberately "lag" non-HBCUs that have not made such commitments with regard to the percentage of HBCU courses and degrees that are offered in online formats. This is not to say that HBCUs should not produce online courses and degree programs, just that they should not be as quick to do so as non-HBCUs because they have deliberately enrolled a higher percentage of students for whom online formats are not good enough ... yet
HBCUs should invest a higher percentage of their limited resources to provide training and financial incentives for their faculty members to upgrade traditional face-to-face courses to blended/hybrid formats. Recent research confirms expectations from common sense that blended courses are more effective for a higher percentage of students than either traditional face-to-face courses or courses offered in online formats.
Online courses and programs are the most advanced segments of a broad array of rapidly evolving e-learning technologies that are generally characterized as "disruptive." The descriptor is apt, but misleading. Too often the term is used to describe profound innovations that organizations fail to adopt, rather than strategic opportunities that were seized. Existential threats are nothing new to HBCUs. Each generation of HBCU leaders has taken office with a clear understanding that their success or failure would determine whether their institutions would survive into the next generation.
So the current leaders understand that they have no choice but to act on the certain knowledge that their HBCUs must disrupt or die. More specifically, they must embrace the mix of new e-learning technologies that will work best for their HBCUs as fast as possible, but no faster -- regardless of what Harvard or Stanford or MIT is doing.
Roy L Beasley is a member of the senior staff of Howard University, but the views expressed here are his own.
Way back in 1973, during my second year as a faculty member at a historically black college, I was teaching a descriptive statistics course to a class of about 15 master's degree students in urban planning. One very bright student, whom I will only identify by his first name, was particularly resistant. One day after he had sounded off in class yet again, I asked him why he refused to learn this material. Here's the reply he gave me that was burned into my brain forever.
Roger: Don't you know that statistics is the white man's trick bag?
Me (stunned, slack-jawed): Why ... why do you say that, Roger?
Roger: Well, have you ever met any statistics that had anything good to say about black people?
Our class was hip deep into the infamous "Moynihan Report", various poverty reports, census reports, and other sources of the negative indicators of what used to be called "The Urban Crisis." Indeed, I had become a professor of urban planning at a black college so that I could teach black students how to change some of those bad numbers. Believing as I do today that you can't fix a problem if you don't admit you have the problem, Roger's blunt challenge left me speechless because it was my first confrontation with an admonition that would assume shifting forms over the following decades; and I was nowhere near as sure of my own position back then as I am today.
Sometimes the admonition sounded like: "We already know what's wrong, so we don't need any more studies." Other times it would appear as "If you say those things now that we have black superintendents, black mayors, black congressmen, etc, etc, etc, our adversaries will use your data to demean our black leaders." From time to time advocates of affirmative action would caution against discussing low graduation rates or achievement gaps because such talk might undermine their efforts. And sometimes the admonition would appear in its most seductive form as "We really need better presentations of our successes, not more documentations of our failures."
Almost 50 years after the civil rights revolution, black progress has been substantial, but nowhere near as substantial as we had hoped it would be and nowhere near as substantial as we needed it to be. By this time, as the Great Recession grinds more and more middle class black families into poverty, and as the black-white gaps in student achievement persist and sometimes widen at all educational levels, you would think that the problem deniers would admit that their strategy hasn't worked, that it has undermined our efforts to achieve the full promise of the victorious revolution led by Dr. King and his courageous peers.
You would think so, but you would be wrong. The problem deniers are still out there, still encouraging us to send our children buck naked into the world's jungles like so many black Harry Potters protected only by maternal fantasies that they can be anything they want to be. No, they can't. It still takes a hell of a lot more guts and talent and other resources for a black man or a black woman to achieve the same level of success as for a white man or a white woman.
I concede that substantial, albeit insufficient black progress had been made since the 60s and 70s. That's the good news. But this progress has not been equally achieved by all schools and colleges that educate black students, or by all black businesses, or by all black professionals. In other words, there has also been substantial variance in black achievements. From a statistical viewpoint, this is great news because statistical analysis thrives on variance. Case studies of success by themselves can be exceedingly counter-productive because they can lull their readers into believing that things are really OK, that it's just the "bias" in the media that makes us think that things aren't progressing as rapidly as we expected them to.
However, if 80 percent of a black population of students, businesses, or professionals fall below some specified levels of satisfactory performance, then well-constructed case studies of a few of the high achieving 20 percent could provide valuable clues to the factors that contributed to their success. In other words, given the fact that all other things are still unequal, we need to figure out how these high achievers attained their greater success. Then we have to devise policies that encourage the low performers to adopt (and adapt) the best practices of the high achievers. This strategy has worked in a variety of other contexts with an important caveat. Best practices must usually be adapted, i.e., modified to fit the local culture. Carbon copies are rarely effective.
With regards to the critical tasks of identifying the factors that contribute to black achievement, I say it's high time for the problem deniers to put away their magic wands, leave Hogwarts, and join the rest of us in the real world. There's nothing magical about black high achievers, but we can't assume that we already know the secrets of their success.
For example, even the most cursory examination of the six-year graduation rates among the nation's 105 historically black colleges is sufficient to blow away any notion that it's just a matter of budgets. The richest HBCU does not have highest graduation rate, nor does the poorest HBCU have the lowest; and this disparity grows much larger when one considers graduation rates vs. per student dollar expenditures. Some HBCUs are making far more productive use of their tuition dollars than others. We need good case studies coupled with statistical analysis to figure out what the more productive HBCUs are doing right; then we have to encourage the lower performing HBCUs to adopt (and adapt) these best practices.
Nor should we confine our analysis to HBCUs. At this point almost 90 percent of America's black students attend integrated, mainstream colleges and universities, not black colleges. And the gross statistics show that some of these colleges and universities have far more impressive retention rates and six year graduation rates for their black students than others. Indeed some colleges and universities have achieved comparable rates for their black and white students. So once again the question becomes: What are the high performers doing that enables them to perform substantially better than the rest? And how can we encourage the lower performers to adopt (and adapt) the high performers' best practices.
Similar statistical analyses and case studies could be conducted with regard to highly productive black students and highly productive black instructors at all educational levels.
The good news is that efforts to identify best practices with regard to black achievement are gaining more support; and, of course, the bad news is that they aren't gaining enough support. But the substantial progress that black Americans have made since the 60s and 70s assures us that there is far more variability in the circumstances of black Americans today than back then. This greater variability should facilitate a golden age of statistical policy analysis because it gives us better opportunities than in decades past to figure out what really works for black Americans and why. Instead of being the white man's trick bag, statistics can become the black man's leverage.
Almost quadrupling in just a few months the number of students who attend summer courses is uncommon at any university.
For M. Christopher Brown II, the new president of Alcorn State University, a historically black public land-grant university in Mississippi, it wasn't quite good enough. In the past, the university enrolled about 500 students in summer courses. Brown set the provost a goal of 2,000, with a bonus offered for achieving it. They ended up with about 1,900, and as happy as Brown is about the increase, the provost isn't getting his bonus.
On April 11, the president of Columbia University announced that it had received a $400 million pledge from alumnus John W. Kluge, who in 2006 was 52nd on the Forbes list of the wealthiest people, earning his fortune through the buying and selling of television and radio stations. This gift, payable upon the 92-year-old’s death, will be the fourth largest ever given to a single institution of higher education.
With such a massive transfer of wealth, the accolades poured in, justifying such a gift to an Ivy League university. Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, said: “The essence of America’s greatness lies, in no small measure, in our collective commitment to giving all people the opportunity to improve their lives… [Kluge] has chosen to direct his amazing generosity to ensuring that young people will have the chance to benefit from a Columbia education regardless of their wealth or family income.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg indicated that investing in education produces returns that can’t be matched. Rep. Charles Rangel said the gift would ensure greater numbers of students can afford a first-class education.
I am becoming less and less tolerant of people who pass wealth on to the privileged and masquerade it as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the voluntary act of donating money, goods or services to a charitable cause, intended to promote good or improve human well being. When a billionaire gives money that will benefit people who are more than likely already well off or who already have access to huge sums of money, attending the ninth richest university by endowment, this is not philanthropy. This simply extends the gross inequities that exist in our country -- inequities that one day will come home to roost.
Almost 40 percent of all college students nationally earned a Pell Grant, which in general represents students from families earning less than $35,000 a year. Yes, almost 40 percent of students in college today are from low income families. At Columbia, where tuition and fees alone tops $31,000, only 16 percent of students are Pell Grant eligible. In fact, over 60 percent of Columbia students don’t even bother to apply for federal financial aid. They can pay the bill -- no problem (see the Economic Diversity of Colleges Web site). Columbia is not alone. A recent New York Times article, which provided a great story on a recent Amherst College graduate, indicated that 75 percent of students attending elite colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, while only 10 percent come from the bottom half, and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile.
For comparison, 83 percent of my students received the Pell Grant during that same year, and 84 percent applied for financial aid. Even with tuition and fees less than $9,000 a year, my students on average will leave college with MORE debt than Columbia students, in fact $11,000 more even though tuition and fees are $22,000 a year less!
I am hopeful that Columbia will do as it states it will, which is to expand the number of scholarship grants to needy students. President Bollinger has been a strong advocate for affirmative action, and I am very hopeful because he has shown great integrity. But even assuming that Columbia spends the money on aid, and that it couldn’t spend more of its existing money on poor students, not to mention admitting more of them, the university’s current campaign has a goal of $1 billion for facilities – that’s an astronomical sum of “philanthropy” to help a wealthy institution have better facilities. And Columbia isn’t alone -- as there are similarly ambitious spending plans by the other public and private universities currently seeking to raise billions of dollars.
And the situation in which the wealthy get wealthier -- while feeling good about their “philanthropic” traditions -- isn’t much better in elite public higher education. Last fall, The Education Trust released “Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities.” This report got little to no play nationally, and certainly nothing like the play the Columbia gift received, because the conclusions were a damning condemnation of higher education’s elite. In 2003, about 100 research extensive universities spent $257 million in financial aid for students from families earning over $100,000 a year, almost as much as that spent on students from families earning $20,000-40,000, and more than that spent on students from families earning less than $20,000. Again, much of these funds come from wealthy, image conscious alumni, praised for being philanthropists, who primarily want to ensure that their university has the best and brightest their money will buy.
The authors of the report indicate “these universities find it more important to use their own money to buy high-income students, who will almost inevitably attend an elite institution no matter what, than to expand the enrollment of… low-income students.” You see, paying to “educate” students who are the easiest to educate raises your rankings. In the process, you keep out poor kids, and incidentally, you will have fewer black and Latino students as well.
Yes, most of these enormous philanthropic gifts go to colleges with small numbers of African American, Latino and Native American students, America’s underrepresented people of color. In looking at a comparison of research extensive and top tier schools using the Economic Diversity of Colleges Web site, Columbia unfortunately has one of the higher percentages among the elite universities of black students at 9 percent, and of Latinos, at 10 percent. Most though are in single digits, and half are around 6-7 percent or less. The Education Trust’s study indicates that black, Latino and Native Americans are 24 percent of all college students, but only 12 percent at state flagships.
So the colleges with the greatest wealth and the best of everything that money can buy (from faculty to facilities), not only are underrepresented with poor students, but also restrict minority students from accessing these resources. If public universities can be called “gated communities of higher education,” private universities like Columbia are easily the country clubs.
America’s so-called philanthropists ignore these facts, and we continue to laud their generosity to the privileged. At the same time, people of color continue to fall further and further behind, and unless we begin to help those who actually need help, America’s economy will suffer.
The idea is simple. By 2020, there will be a 77 percent increase in the Hispanic population and a 32 percent increase in the black population, with less than a 1 percent increase for whites. In 1980, whites were 82 percent of the working age population. By 2020, they will be 63 percent of workers. From 1980 to 2000, the educational gap between whites and blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans has actually widened. Finally, those same people of color earn less than whites at all equivalent levels of education.
Kelly writes, “Substantial growth in the least-educated segments of our population combined with income disadvantages for the same populations will not lead us toward a brighter future…. If these problems are left unaddressed, the result is a less educated workforce and a decline in per capita personal income.”
And so I read with my general sense of despair as another billionaire gives millions to a university that serves a population that looks nothing like America presently or in the future, economically or racially. Politicians heap praises for these gifts from the wealthy to the wealthy while the vast majority of their constituents will never benefit from these acts. They’re too busy working three jobs and sending their kids to substandard elementary and high schools that will ensure they never go to places like Columbia.
This is not a sour grapes soliloquy. This is a cry for justice. I spend many nights trying to figure out how do colleges like mine, which have the students with the most need, both educationally and financially, catch the attention of those who have the power to transform the lives of the masses. Just think what $400 million would do at my college, which has an endowment of $12 million.
But this is a dream for colleges like mine. In fact, the record gift by individuals to any historically black college is a mere $20 million, given 20 years ago by Bill and Camille Cosby. We are left to maximize the Pell Grant which covers a fraction of what it did 30 years ago, as well as beg for corporate crumbs to assist our students. Occasionally in this quest to help even when the college can’t afford to do so, some colleges have improperly provided federal financial aid, which then creates an impression of incompetence. I know -- I inherited such a situation. While I don’t agree with what happened, I can tell you that the driving force was a desire to help someone graduate from college despite the limited resources. This Robin Hood approach only works in the movies though.
Our political leaders must begin to challenge the wealthy to practice real philanthropy. They should be encouraged to give gifts that will benefit a greater number of people with real need (most of their constituents), versus a wealthy minority. If that fails, everyone must know that our economy is on the verge of collapse as greater numbers of poorly educated, lower wage earning people of color become the majority of our workforce.
It is time for us to restore the integrity of philanthropy, and call gifts to the wealthy what they really are -- the perpetuation of privilege.
Walter M. Kimbrough
Walter M. Kimbrough is the president of Philander Smith College.