Bad HBCUs Should Close

As many colleges face financial problems they are forced to either marge with another school or go under. I wrote about the struggle of one such school, the Corcoran School of Art, which merged with George Washington University, back in February.

Art schools are likely to be the source of many mergers in the future; the finances of such institutions and the (lack of) wealth of their alumni mean that they’re often economically struggling these days.

Another place where a lot of mergers are likely to take place are America’s historically black schools, which also often have precarious finances. Is this a problem? We need to be very, very careful about how such mergers proceed, writes Jarrett Carter, the Founding Editor of HBCUDigest, over at the Huffington Post:

Threats against HBCUs are threats against the fabric of America’s future. If there are but a handful of colleges and universities able and willing to educate swelling populations of Blacks and Hispanics, reducing that handful will not make Ivy League and predominantly white colleges suddenly racially tolerant. It won’t make underserved and poor communities of color disappear, and it won’t raise their chances of improvement through stronger secondary schools, better health care, or increased jobs.

Reducing capacity at, or eliminating HBCUs will only expedite the growth of a healthy American apartheid, one that will be the full result of a nation that loves to claim diversity, but rarely does anything to advance the full measure of its possibility. Supporting black colleges enables black communities to create and thrive for themselves. HBCUs, by being the single largest hubs of education, employment, and community development in many of the cities where they are stationed, slow the tyranny of non-black power within their gates. With them, more black people are better trained and positioned to create and hold more jobs, buy more houses and cars, pay more taxes, and have more babies who will be, statistically, more likely to follow the lineage of professional success.

StPauls[St. Saint Paul’s College, a private, historically black college in Lawrenceville, Virginia, which closed in 2013 due to financial difficulties]

I’m not entirely convinced by his argument. While it’s true that many of them are quite good at ensuring that “more black people are better trained and positioned to create and hold more jobs,” it’s unclear if such schools are the exception or the rule.

Here with the Washington Monthly’s college ranking, we often find many of the nation’s HBCUs among the top performing schools in terms social mobility, research, and service to the country. But many other HBCUS are pretty bad, and suffer from low graduation rates, high student debt levels, and limited student engagement. It’s not really clear why any of those institutions really need the country’s support.

The reason people founded HBCUs was to provide higher education opportunities for young black men and women at a time when white institutions prohibited them from attending. But this is no longer the case. Like with women’s colleges, many of them are quite good and will succeed on their own merit and financial resources. But the rest of them? Well, they’ve served their purpose and can close or merge with really pretty limited adverse impact on the black community.

There are surely benefit to attending many historically black colleges, because they do, as Carter wrote, “slow the tyranny of non-black power.” But there isn’t really benefit to attending a historically black college if it’s a terrible historically black college.

Isn’t it good for those schools to merge with other, better managed, institutions Isn’t it better for young black men and women to attend healthy, stable colleges?

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