When then Senator Barack Obama broke the glass ceiling of electoral politics and became the first African American to serve as President of the United States, many hailed this accomplishment as an important sign of racial progress and equality of opportunity. Simultaneously, some looked toward historically Black colleges and universities, institutions established in a time of overt segregation and restricted educational opportunity, and asked, "Are HBCUs still relevant to the nation's future?" With the 2009 appointment of Dr. John Wilson as the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the 2010 signing of an Executive Order on HBCUs, President Obama has answered, "Yes, they are." And he is right.
Consider the fact that while the 105 public and private HBCUs make up only 3% of today's colleges and universities, more than 20% of all African-American college graduates attended an HBCU. Particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), where Black students are woefully under-represented in most predominantly white institutions, HBCUs have demonstrated great effectiveness in fostering academic success. In fact, according to the National Science Foundation, almost a third of all doctoral degrees awarded in the sciences to African Americans went to men and women who attended HBCUs as undergraduates. Spelman College is leading the way, having sent more African Americans (150 women) on to earn Ph.D. degrees in the STEM fields in the ten years between 1997 and 2006 than Georgia Tech (32), Emory (24), Duke (34), and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (54) combined.
The relevance and power of an HBCU education in which faculty expectations are high, peer support is strong, and role models are abundant is quantifiable and worthy of preserving and strengthening with investment. Black students who want to see themselves as not just one of a few who can succeed but rather one of many who seek and find that legacy of success and affirmation on an HBCU campus.
They also find a legacy of leadership and an ethos of community service. From the beginning HBCUs were established to educate a class of leaders, men and women who would understand what it means to reach back as you move forward. This message of responsibility to one's community remains a contemporary one and critical to the African-American community, a community financially devastated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and wounded further by double-digit unemployment, continuing health disparities, and rising rates of school failure and incarceration. HBCUs are producing college graduates who have been told from the day of matriculation that they have entered to learn, but they are to exit to serve their communities. And they do.
As we consider President Obama's ambitious goal of having the highest graduation rate of any nation in the world by 2020, it is clear that we need the full participation of HBCUS to not only achieve the numerical goal, but to achieve the goal of impact -- graduates who understand their mission and what it means to "lift as you climb."