I have always been of the mind-set that not everyone speaks numbers. People often take numbers and manipulate them to provide an analysis they don’t suggest. Or, more often, people don’t review enough numbers to share a fuller picture of a situation. In this political climate, we’ve seen numbers completely ignored and new ones invented because they support a particular narrative.
Numbers are useful if used properly because they can help provide an understanding of the state of some person, place or thing. As a college president, I am always interested in numbers. How many admissions applications are we converting to admits? What is our current alumni giving rate? What are the records of our basketball teams? (I’m competitive!)
I love numbers.
But I hate when I see numbers incorrectly used as part of news stories. I am even more enraged when the misuse of numbers feed into a narrative that many would like to believe for their own purposes, to support their ideas and beliefs. Unfortunately, I often see numbers misused in a way that tends to reinforce an idea of historically black colleges and universities as less than most of higher education. When I see that happen, I always respond.
Recently, for example, Forbes magazine published a story on its website, “Lower Enrollment Hits Higher Ed Hard, HBCUs the Hardest.”
I want to set the record straight about it, as it reinforced what many people think about HBCUs: that they have no place in 2019.
For starters, the article is based on a faulty premise. It noted correctly that between 2010 and 2016, while all of higher education saw a loss of enrollment of 6 percent, HBCUs faced a loss of 11 percent. Yet during that same period, enrollment at two-year colleges was down 19 percent, and enrollment at for-profit institutions was down 41 percent, almost four times the sector described as being hit the hardest.
I’ve theorized that HBCUs would experience new interest after the 2015 protests at the University of Missouri, which led to protests all across the nation that academic year. While HBCU enrollment still dropped 0.4 percent from 2015 to 2016, it was half the loss of 0.7 percent for all of higher education. For-profit universities’ enrollment dropped 12 percent from 2015 to 2016 alone.
The author of the piece on the Forbes website also cited a 2014 article in the Huffington Post, “No Greater Waste of Money Than an HBCU,” to prove that HBCUs have a reputational problem. She seemingly didn’t understand that the article was a sarcastic one, stating that if philanthropists are simply wasting money, as some argue, they should do so with HBCUs. In fact, the author of that article made the point that it is easy to devalue HBCUs if you only look at surface numbers. This more recent piece, however, was based entirely on such surface numbers.
A more thorough examination of why enrollments at HBCUs declined would have addressed systemic problems. For example, did any events disproportionately impact black students and cause these numbers to drop? Of course. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education changed the requirements for qualifying for the Parent PLUS loan, and for several years, fewer students qualified. While Bennett College was cited for its struggles in the story published by Forbes, there was no mention of how the college went from having 63 percent of their Parent PLUS loans approved in 2011 to only 18 percent in 2012.
Perhaps the story could have explored how many black families don’t earn a living wage, so abrupt changes in the Parent PLUS loan, or more recently, the ending of the Perkins Loan program, combined with Pell Grant increases not being indexed to inflation, limit opportunities for college. Here in New Orleans, 53 percent of all families are struggling to get by -- either living in poverty or living as ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed). And of those, 69 percent are black families, while 30 percent are white families.
In fact, the story could have been about the resilience of HBCUs, despite the wealth inequality and the Parent PLUS changes. It could have been about how wealth inequality more severely impacts black students and is limiting their opportunity to attend any college or university. Black student enrollment declined 15 percent between 2010 and 2016, and over 3 percent alone between 2015 and 2016.
These are objective factors that impact enrollment for all colleges. But they more severely affect the population that overwhelmingly attends HBCUs. Instead of looking at the whole picture, the story painted a misleading view of an entire sector. The fact that the author offered Cheyney University as a flagship, undoubtedly a significant institution historically, rather than Howard University, one of the largest HBCUs with an endowment of almost $700 million, puts an exclamation point on the problems of this type of reporting.
Despite all of the obstacles, there is considerable interest among many students today in attending HBCUs. With the continuation of incidents of black students being challenged at colleges where they are enrolled, more and more students and parents are taking a new look at HBCUs. And it doesn’t hurt when one of the biggest stars on the planet, Beyoncé, does an HBCU-themed performance at Coachella.
I have said over and over that I hate when those in the HBCU community proclaim that we need to tell our stories. Not only do we often fail to tell our stories, we sit quietly when false stories are shared.
Today, we need a modern, data-driven and unapologetic fact-checking approach to present HBCUs in a fair and accurate light. Yes, like all of higher education, we have challenges -- significant ones based on the economic factors impacting our primary population. But we can’t ignore it any longer when those challenges are presented in the worst possible light.
My pastor often references Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who once said, “God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
I am always going to speak. The question is: Who is with me?