The United Negro College Fund has released an economic impact study of the nation’s 100-plus historically black colleges and universities. The data showcases the financial power of HBCUs in three areas of economic influence; money spent by HBCU students and faculty, jobs created by HBCUs, and the potential lifetime earnings of HBCU graduates.
The total economic impact of HBCUs is $14.8 billion (as of 2014), creating more than 134,000 jobs and more than $130 billion in earnings for HBCU graduates. For HBCU advocates nationwide, the numbers would seem to give a new credence to the idea of HBCU relevance, and a grand accompaniment to stories of HBCU alumni having a superior college experience to black students from PWIs, and the increasing number of black students enrolling in HBCU campuses.
But a closer look at the data also gives us a sobering look at the individual and collective prospects of black colleges in a shifting higher education landscape.
UNCF’s economic impact number of $14.8 billion is about $4.6 billion more than the number generated by the last study commissioned on black colleges in 2006, which analyzed institutional impact from 2001. Everyone should be excited by any data attaching billions to HBCUs in how they generate wealth for students and communities. But the report doesn’t do black colleges any favors in advancing the relevance argument, in part, because so much vital data about HBCU value is absent from the report.
For as long as we have been waiting for such a report, and for as much technology and data is available from federal and school data resources, there is much to be desired from this report. While the report does account for spending associated with faculty and students, there are no breakdowns for the obvious areas in which HBCUs create money and opportunity; athletics and social events.
UNCF makes it difficult for us to take seriously an economic impact report when there is no mention of HBCU homecomings, athletic tournaments, concerts, conferences, and other convenings. A baseline formula detailing dollars-per-person doesn’t do justice for the communities which this year have reaped millions from HBCU homecoming season.
Beyond homecoming and tailgating windfalls, the report also doesn’t speak to the strength of HBCU social outreach missions. How much economic impact is yielded by student and faculty volunteerism? What are HBCU research expenditures, capital projects, philanthropic impact, entrepreneurial and startup impacts?
These areas, essential elements of how higher education economic impact is measured, puts HBCUs at an instant and distinct disadvantage in comparison to PWI peer institutions and systems. To put the UNCF study in perspective, the University of North Carolina System’s last reported economic impact was more than $27 billion dollars generated by 17 member schools, including five public HBCUs.
The University of Alabama – Birmingham this year reported its economic impact at more than $7 billion.
Just to recap:
University of Alabama – Birmingham $7.1 billion
100 HBCUs – $14.8 billion
UNC System (17 Schools) – $27.9 billion
So somewhere between one school in Alabama and 17 schools in North Carolina is 100-plus HBCUs.
With several private and a few public HBCUs facing real threats of closure, the UNCF report could have provided a much-needed lifeline for those campuses desperate for metric-based proof of life for lawmakers, alumni donors and potential students. Instead, the study gives us a glimpse of what the challenge of disparity truly looks like.