How Viable are Historically Black Colleges and Universities?

05/05/2015 05:14 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

With increasing frequency, when people in my friendship circle discover that I am a retired HBCU chancellor, they want to know three things. First, since white colleges and universities no longer have racially restrictive admission policies, are HBCUs still necessary? Second, given the vast array of higher education options available to black students, how viable are these institutions long-term? Third, by continuing to function as HBCUs, are these institutions engaging in racism? After all, my friends suggest, there would be a national outcry if there were institutions referring to themselves as Historically White Colleges and Universities. While my colleagues are sincere in raising these questions, I must admit that at times I'm surprised by the naïveté of the questions and would prefer to not respond. But being the ardent HBCU advocate that I am, I dare not remain silent.

Since each of the foregoing questions are complex and require significant unbundling, the focus of this blog is on what I consider to be the most salient of the three questions, "How viable are HBCUs long-term?" Perhaps the most important starting point is to acknowledge that HBCUs are not a monolithic group of institutions. They are just as different from each other as any other constellation of institutions, e. g. land grant colleges, religious schools, research institutions, community colleges, catholic colleges, liberal arts colleges, or tribal colleges, among others. The common denominator for any these institutions is their mission, and so it is with HBCUs.

Based on my experience as an HBCU graduate and chancellor, combined with more than four decades of advocacy and philanthropy, I have concluded that the viability of HBCUs are driven by the collective impact of 11 critical variables.

1. Leadership stability and effectiveness. The rhetoric aside, HBCUs that cannot attract and retain experienced, visionary, passionate and effective leadership at the presidential and cabinet levels are less viable than those that can. Institutions that are prone to appoint executives who preside rather than lead are doomed for failure.

2. Fiscal solvency. There is no substitute for fiscal solvency -- either you are or you aren't -- Institutions that are not fiscally solvent, cannot attract and retain well-prepared students, committed faculty and staff, nor garner philanthropic support from alumni, foundations or corporations. No one wants to invest in an institution whose financial records are in such disarray that they cannot be audited in a timely manner. Auditors cannot be blamed for the incompetence of fiscal administrators or their staff.

3. Enrollment stability. It's a proven fact, institutions that cannot attract and retain students are not viable. Further, the key to attracting students is in direct proportion to an institution's ability to deliver high-quality academic programs and services that students need for academic success. The significance of an institution's promises are only as good as the institution's capacity to deliver. Students and parents can see through the hype.

4. Persistence and graduation rates. The best measure of an institution's effectiveness is whether students succeed in achieving their educational and career aspirations. Irrespective of the reasons, institutions that graduate less than 50 percent of their students in six years may survive but they will not thrive. There is a difference.

5. Accreditation status. Although all institutions are at different levels on the quality continuum, at a minimum, each must be accredited by their respective regional accrediting bodies in order to qualify for participation in state and federal student financial aid programs. Institutions with a record of accreditation instability cannot expect to attract students who have options for pursuit of a college degree. Similarly, it would not be prudent for students to enroll at an institution with accreditation problems whether it's an HBCU or not.

6. Alumni support. No matter how persistent or powerful the rhetoric, institutions that do not enjoy the support of their alumni are not likely to thrive. Giving money is just one aspect of that support. Equally important aspects include referring prospective students, mentoring current students and advocating on the institution's behalf. Irrespective of wealth status, these are things every alumnus can do. Long-term, institutions that are not supported by alumni are not as sustainable as those that are.

7. Location. Location is not an insignificant issue relative to an institution's ability to attract and retain students. Irrespective of status or type, institutions located in heavily rural areas with limited employment, cultural, social or cultural opportunities, rural institutions are at a strategic disadvantage in attracting students who come increasingly from urban and suburban populations.

8. Endowment level. Money matters! It's a no brainer, those institutions with small endowments have fewer options for meeting their fiscal needs than those with large endowments.

9. The quality of the board of trustees. A good board of trustees can make or break an institution. In recent months and years there have been numerous media reports about the micromanaging behavior of boards at a growing number of HBCUs. Boards that see their role as being "the boss" are less likely to stay in their lane by hiring and empowering a chief executive to provide essential institutional leadership. Increasingly, from the largest to the smallest, and from the most prestigious to the least, there are reports about trustee behavior that's inconsistent best board practices.

10. Debt level. In an effort to build new facilities or remodel outdated ones that will allow them to compete with other institutions, many HBCUs have taken on more debt than they can realistically handle in the context enrollment, fee structure, competitiveness, annual fundraising and total endowment. Because of their overall fiscal commitments and debt rating, the cost of borrowing is considerably higher for many low-wealth institutions.

11. Quality and competitiveness of academic programs. At the end of the day, those institutions that have value in the market place will be those that produce graduates who can compete successfully in the global workforce. Given the manifold ways in which people acquire knowledge, where ones degree is from will become less relevant in the future. With the growth and acceptance of online education providers, for example, we are already beginning to see a decline in the significance of where one attended college.

The social landscape that gave birth to HBCUs has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. In the future, where students attend college will be determined less by the ethnic identification of the institution and more by its capacity to respond to the unique needs and interest of students. If HBCUs expect to thrive, they must develop and deploy a comprehensive enrollment management strategy wherein they aggressively recruit, retain and graduate students who can benefit from the culture of caring for which HBCUs are known.

In preparing for the future, HBCUs and other institutions serving significant numbers of first generation and low-wealth students would do well to assess their viability and take corrective action that will allow them to compete on the basis of their relevance, responsiveness, quality and competitiveness. This is what the market place demands; nothing more and nothing less.