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And Still We Rise: One HBCU President's Perspective

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As President Obama was celebrating the contributions of the nation's 105 historically black colleges and marking his pledge to invest another $850 million over the next decade, I received the exciting news that a team of two Spelman College computer science students won the grand prize in the 2010 AT&T Big Mobile on Campus Challenge for the application they designed, joining a small circle of past winners from Harvard and Stanford. I also received messages from two recent graduates, one studying women and democracy in India on a Fulbright Fellowship, the other working to end child prostitution in Northern Thailand as a Luce Fellow. The achievements of our students are a daily source of pride and inspiration for me. Clearly there is a disconnect between the reality I see every day as president of the oldest historically black college for women and the assumptions outsiders make about what we do and why we do it.

Spelman was founded in 1881 to educate women of African descent ready and able to uplift the communities around them. That mission was born out of necessity and continues today out of commitment to a vision of education that places young black women at the center of the educational enterprise. To be at the center, rather than on the margins, is a place of empowerment, and it is that desire for empowerment that leads more than 5,000 young women a year to apply for 530 spaces in the first-year class, making Spelman College among the most selective of women's colleges in the country.

It has been suggested by some commentators that the fact that average SAT scores are lower at Spelman than at equally selective institutions is an indicator of lower academic quality. I would suggest perhaps it is an indicator of lower average family income. SAT scores are more highly correlated with family income than almost any other variable -- the higher the income, the higher the score is likely to be. According to a 2007 article in Postsecondary Education Opportunity, Spelman College is now educating more Pell-Grant eligible students than any other selective liberal arts college in the nation, except Berea College. Of approximately 2,200 students at Spelman that year, 885 of them were Pell-Grant recipients, 40% of our total population. Ivy League institutions with thousands more undergraduates are educating far fewer Pell-Grant recipients. In 2008, Harvard had 543 among an undergraduate population of 6,700, Yale had 469 among 5,350, Princeton only 264 among 4,719. Despite a much smaller endowment than these giants, it is Spelman College that is doing the important work of providing social mobility to talented students like these every year.

With a graduation rate of approximately 80% -- among the highest in the nation -- we have delivered on our promise and opened wide the doors of prestigious graduate school and employment opportunities. Further, we have defied the low expectations for women and minorities in science by graduating almost a third of our students with degrees in the STEM fields, serving as a major pipeline of black female engineers, mathematicians and health professionals. In the midst of our nation's education crisis, we are a beacon of hope and could do even more with additional resources.

I know that not every HBCU shares the same profile as Spelman College, nor does every majority institution look like Harvard. Yet it is important to understand each institution in its own context -- its history, the region it serves, and the service it still provides to a nation in need of every source of talent. HBCUs represent only 2% of colleges and universities in the U.S. but are the source of approximately 23% of all black college graduates, and an even higher percentage of those pursuing careers in the sciences. I commend President Obama for his commitment to HBCUs because he knows what every HBCU president knows -- our nation cannot achieve its educational goals without the full participation of our vital institutions.