How a Shoeshine Boy Got to College – As Its President

Xavier President Norman Francis gestures during an interview at the the university in New Orleans, La., Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008. AP Photo/Bill Haber

Let’s honor great legacies by creating new ones.

This summer, Dr. Norman Francis retired as president of Xavier University of Louisiana after serving venerably for 47 years in the role. But let’s be clear. Longevity isn’t a testament to greatness. The empowerment that Francis’s work created for the black community will last well beyond the period of time in which he served. I along with thousands of others across the country thank Francis for building the capacities for the black and Vietnamese communities of New Orleans with grace and distinction.

But the only way to truly honor a great legacy is to create new ones. Francis was given the opportunity to self-actualize through a scholarship to attend Xavier. The rest of us should honor that example.

A simple listing of Francis’s accomplishments would take away all room for commentary. But I will offer a few. Francis served on the commission that issued the consequential report, Nation at Risk; led Xavier, which consistently graduates the most black undergraduates with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM); and served on some of the most important boards in education including the United Negro College Fund, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Educational Testing System. In 2006, Francis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A listing of the boards, accolades and baubles can’t convey his impact on the New Orleans community as well as the education world. Francis himself wouldn’t point to the trail of recognitions as marking his legacy.

Related: The heaviest college debt burdens fall on three types of students

A shoeshine boy born to parents without high school diplomas, Francis won a college scholarship and became a leader in his field. His story would be one of exceptionalism at a predominately white institution. However, Francis’s rise is standard for HBCUs that are charge to educate in spite of the systems that degrade black and brown children. Again, where would the black community be without HBCUs?

Protection from injustice for black and Vietnamese kids

In New Orleans, Francis and Xavier University have been nothing less than the social levees for black and Vietnamese communities holding back economic injustice, racism and paternalism that have ravaged so many outside the university’s protection. In the tradition of the late, great Benjamin Elijah Mays of Morehouse University, Norman Francis established an arboretum for minds, which couldn’t bloom in the shadows of the education plantations people of color were (are) afforded. This is the charter HBCUs have with society.

At the recent New Orleans scholarship gala that celebrated his life and legacy, Francis said, “If there was not an HBCU, I would be leading the fight to start one.”

The impacts of Francis’s good works through Xavier will flow alongside the Mississippi River; Norman Francis is forever. However, poverty along with federal and state policy changes make HBCUs less accessible for future leaders.

Related: How scrapping the one-size-fits-all education defeats inequity

Andre Perry with Norman Francis

Andre Perry with Norman Francis Photo: Andre Perry

Like many cities across the country, low incomes limit family’s educational options in New Orleans, which has a child poverty rate of 39 percent compared with a national rate of 22 percent. According the Data Center, “37 percent of households [in New Orleans] live in asset poverty, defined as not having the financial means to support a household for three months at the federal poverty level should they lose their main source of income.”

Students need financial aid policy to increase access to places like Xavier University of Louisiana. However, specific policy changes have made HBCU less accessible to poor students who want and need a HBCU experience.

For instance, performance-based funding systems have undercut HBCU’s mission of educating all students. Pell grants have not kept pace with tuition. Across all HBCUs, nearly 73 percent of students qualify for the Federal Pell Grant. In addition, changes to the Pell Grant and PLUS loan programs disproportionately hurt students of color. In 2011 Pell Grant awards were eliminated for summer semesters, and more than 70 percent of the PLUS loan application were denied. HBCUs have worked hard to negotiate changes to these policies but HBCUs are still trying to recover from the fed’s prior actions.

Should we have an educational system that puts smart people (who happen to be asset poor) in debt? After filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, many students qualify for full Pell grants, which should translate to an expected family contribution (EFC) toward tuition of zero. However, financial gaps, seemingly as wide as the Gulf, exist between the cost of tuition and how much money students receive in grants, scholarships and other forms of aid. Consequently, many are forced to take out loans.

An aside — To evidence their success, high schools will announce how much total scholarship money their seniors have garnered. While applauding, we should ask, what is the financial gap those students still must close?

Related: Changing the incentives for colleges to enroll and graduate low-income students

Ultimately, our financial aid systems limit students’ options, particularly for private HBCUs. Critics say black students should attend less expensive, state institutions. Many still ask: Are HBCUs, private or public, relevant in the age of Obama? But for many black and brown students, attending a predominately white institution presents risks that more culturally sensitive and reflective intuitions simply do not offer. Although difficult, solving for financial gaps is much easier than making a university’s academic culture more inclusive.

Consequently, the best way we can honor Francis is by contributing to an HBCU scholarship program. In particular, Xavier University of Louisiana established the Norman C. Francis Endowed Scholarship Fund to assist students who are falling through the financial gap. Norman Francis started paving the road to greatness. The rest of us must finish making a way for future students.

I’m sure another medal won’t do for Norman Francis. Honor great legacies by creating new ones.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).