What Recruiters Typically Get Wrong About HBCUs

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A lot of the coverage of HBCUs focuses on just a few things: marching bands, Greek life, graduation rates and, occasionally, financial or administrative mismanagement. But while those are important things to cover, HBCUs are an engine of upward economic mobility and must be recognized as such

Research by the American Council on Education found that HBCUs move twice as many low income students to the top income brackets than predominantly white institutions. A New York Times economic mobility ranking also found almost half of the top 20 public colleges are HBCUs. 

Schools like Grambling State University, Southern University and A&M College and Elizabeth City State University are all doing really well at helping their students move up the economic ladder.

There’s a few reasons for this:

First, HBCUs provide more support than just telling students to attend class, which leads to better retention. For example, a video recently went viral of a Lincoln University professor holding his student’s baby during class when she couldn’t find child care.

Dillard University’s President Walter Kimbrough said people at his HBCU will help buy students a meal here or there, or even help fly them to a grad school interview, all of which leads to them being able to stay in school.

Another reason these upward mobility rates are higher is because HBCUs typically enroll a larger amount of low-income students.

At Dillard, the median parent income is a little over $30,000. That means a larger share of the student body has the possibility of moving up the economic ladder after they graduate.

Compare that to a school like LSU, where the median parent income is over $108,000.

But accepting more low-income students is a double-edged sword because it can negatively impact overall graduation rates, which gets to one of the things people get wrong about HBCUs: that their graduation rates are a reflection of the quality of their instruction.

Research shows low-income students are a lot less likely to get their bachelor’s degree in six years. One unexpected financial emergency can make or break whether they can stay in school.

But graduation rates are a traditional way of measuring a school’s success that is used as a key metric in rankings by US News and World Report, and in some cases, the amount of state funding a school receives.

By only comparing schools based on graduation rates, people miss that HBCU students often have more challenges to overcome to even graduate. In reality, HBCUs often do a better job at graduating poor and Black students than the national average.

Dillard’s six-year graduation rate is about 50 percent, while the national average is around 61 percent and only about 40 percent for Black students.

In specific disciplines like engineering, select HBCUs graduate engineering students at a higher rate than flagship universities in their state, which are larger and more well funded than HBCUs.

Take Alabama for example. For the 2019-2020 school year, a quarter of Tuskegee University’s graduating class left with an engineering degree, higher than the University of Alabama, which saw 13 percent of its class that year graduate with an engineering degree.

Tuskegee’s rate was even higher than one of the main engineering universities in the state and a Tuskegee neighbor, Auburn University, which gave 20 percent of its class engineering degrees.

There is much misinformation that swirls around HBCUs, but they are an important source of diverse talent, in STEM and across disciplines. Look deeper than some of the top-line, flashy numbers and  a much more nuanced picture becomes clear.

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.
Contact: mirtha@tpinsights.com