The Truth About HBCU Graduation Rates

The Orlando Sentinel this week continued its media framing assault on Florida A&M University, recently publishing a piece on FAMU’s graduation rates. Hovering around 12-percent four-year undergraduate completion rate for incoming freshmen, and a 39-percent tick for those completing in six years, the article wastes no time in giving the reader the usual higher ed porn found in HBCU stories – students leave saddled with debt and no degree to show for it.

Here’s the truth about historically black colleges and universities’ graduation rates, a truth that anyone with cultural and racial sensibility can appreciate. HBCUs admit and graduate the students that most four-year institutions won’t consider for enrollment. There are casualties. Many of them. But giving low-income, high academic-risk students a chance to go to college is the most socially responsible thing to make those students the primary advocate for change in their lives, and the lives of their families.

Criticizing HBCUs for low graduation rates is like criticizing hospitals for high death rates among emergency surgery patients. Sure, there will be losses when someone gets half of their head blown off in gun violence, is clinging to life after a car accident or heart attack, or has suffered a massive stroke. But where else can they go for treatment? Don’t they deserve a chance to survive and lead a full life afterwards?

Judging the HBCU for students that drop out and don’t pay back default loans is like judging the homeless person suffering from schizophrenia who refuses public housing and help. Should they be scorned for not taking the obvious path to good living, when illness consumes their judgment and critical thinking skills?

Do critics understand that poverty, underfunded secondary school systems and missing social programs all contribute to students not being college ready? Do they understand that students who overcome society’s ills are not the rule, but the exception that breeds success that expands to communities? Is it that hard to see that these ills, combined with media messages that contort the meaning of success and affluence in black communities, keeps young minds from understanding the value of education?

We are only 40 years removed from the first generation of black youth first considering college as a viable option. Since the dawn of that golden era of educational access, HBCU enrollment has skyrocketed, black people earning post-baccalaureate degrees has skyrocketed, and the pop culture pace of “first African-American to fill-in-the-blank” has slowed to a crawl within several industries. Most of this progress is a direct result of historically black colleges and universities taking black students from the rural south and the metropolitan north and midwest to expand their cultural and professional views of the world.

Even with the proliferation of drugs and its resulting effects on black men entering prison and growing the culture of broken families and single parenthood, black students throughout the nation continue to excel ahead of schedule in creating new trends and examples of achievement and success.

HBCUs continue to graduate the most significant portion of African-Americans earning graduate degrees. They continue to serve as the top hubs for research concerned with and providing solutions for issues negatively impacting black people and the communities in which they live. If the number of people not graduating from HBCUs outpaces the number of people who do earn a degree, it’s not for a lack of want, preparation or culture on the part of the schools.

It’s because some folks die. Even with the best of intentions and the best resources, some folks just don’t make it. And HBCUs are long on intent and well short on resources.

Some argue that HBCUs should tighten up admission standards, and educate the best of the best black students across America. Can HBCUs do a better job of screening applicants to ensure that students most geared to success are getting in despite economic and academic factors suggesting otherwise? Absolutely. Can HBCUs direct more of their dollars, as limited as they are, to retention and supplemental resources for at-risk students? They can, and most HBCUs do.

Creating a league of highly selective HBCUs won’t improve Black America. In fact, excluding thousands of Black students to make more HBCUs in the mold of Morehouse and Spelman is counterproductive to the HBCU mission itself – a mission that in part suggests that all people deserve a chance, and those who make the most of that chance deserve to be educated by their people and for their people.

If HBCUs only accepted the highest achieving black students, not only would recruitment efforts from PWI’s with more resources increase to attract students away from black colleges, but HBCUs would not be able to economically sustain with limited availability to an already-small talent pool.

Millions think HBCUs aren’t doing enough and they aren’t doing it fast enough. To them, the numbers don’t lie.  But they also don’t tell the entire truth of why HBCUs remain the best option for any American student, but particularly African-Americans.

After all, it’s not like PWI’s are doing that much better at making education available to black people.

  • Corey Edmonds

    Great article! Well written and well delivered. I love being a GRADUATE from an HBCU!


    Thank you!
    Wonderfully written.

    Florida A&M University, ’05 & ’07

  • Adrian Freeman

    Thank you for this editorial. 

  • norris720

    What is the real reason for the low graduation rate for students at  HBCU’s? First are our students prepared for college? Finance is the next issue, are we financiapl able to stay in school for four years. Not just financial aid dollars, are we dealing with family issue while trying to receive an education. Rasining a family while attending college, working to pay  our tutition!

  • DuWarn Porter

    Great article!!!
    DuWarn V. Porter, MBA
    Southern U. A&M College 93′