America’s historically black colleges should be more involved in online education, so says Reggie Smith in a piece he writes for Diverse Issues in Higher Education. As Smith explains:

HBCUs, which have traditionally provided an education for people who might not otherwise had the opportunity, have an imperative to take their programs online. There has been incremental growth in the number of Black colleges offering degrees online, aided, in part, by Education Online Services Corporation, an online learning management company founded by Ezell Brown and led by former NAACP president Dr. Benjamin Chavis that provides support for HBCUs seeking to offer full-degree programs online. This and other initiatives come as for-profit online education companies like the University of Phoenix recruit and graduate an increasing number of African-American students. In fact, the University of Phoenix awards more bachelor’s degrees to African-American students than any HBCU.

Smith is chairman of the board of directors for the United States Distance Learning Association, an association that promotes the development of distance education, so he’s sort of a biased observer, but this isn’t the first time someone’s proposed this idea.

It seems to make sense. HBCUs serve a lot of poor students. Poor students also flock to online education because it allows them to earn college credits while also holding down jobs.

Back in November radio personality Tom Joyner launched HBCUsOnline “to tap into the lucrative online adult higher education market.” His for-profit company is supposed to “help HBCU partners increase their market share, enrollment and revenue through marketing.”

That’s what seems so interesting about Smith’s argument, too. It’s all about marketing. As he explains,

In addition to boosting their online programs, these colleges need to take note of what for-profit institutions are doing regarding marketing and leveraging best practices. According to TNS Media Intelligence, the University of Phoenix spent $222 million on domestic marketing in 2007. HBCUs generally lack such a massive marketing budget, but they can leverage free or low-cost marketing outlets like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and public access channels.

Well alright, but is that really the most important thing to work on here?

Well sure online education that might be good for HBCUs who want to “tap into the lucrative online adult higher education market,” but it’s not really clear that such programs would be good for students. Smith says that “our institutions need to step to the plate and deliver the rigorous learning environments that HBCUs are known for…. These are the HBCUs that created legendary giants like Langston Hughes, Oprah Winfrey, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr.” Frankly, if you’re only getting the education online, it doesn’t really matter which college administers it.

The trouble is that online education is impersonal and often tends to be poorly run. It just isn’t consistently very good.

Maybe HBCUs should try to create inexpensive, high quality distance learning programs first. Let the marketing come later.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer