Little-Noticed Crisis at Black Colleges
The New York Times, August 3, 2005
by Samuel Freedman

HOUSTON - In a classroom of white walls and black students, an air-conditioned sanctuary from a sweltering July morning, Devon Moore walked toward the front table with his homework. He had clipped out a newspaper article and now gave a one-sentence synopsis of its subject, safety problems in pickup trucks. He identified a word new to him, ''adjacent,'' and a word that used a prefix or suffix, ''faulty.'' He was less than four weeks from starting his freshman year of college.

Devon had passed up a senior-class trip to Atlanta to enroll in the Summer Academy at Texas Southern University here, and at the outset of the eight-week session, he had wondered why. Having graduated from high school, he figured, ''I already knew everything there was to learn.'' That illusion crashed and burned on Day 1, when the math instructor taught a lesson on slope and even gave an overnight assignment.

For some 185 incoming freshmen like him, and indeed for Texas Southern as an institution, the summer courses in reading, writing, and math form one front in a battle to reverse a disturbingly low graduation rate. Of the students who received diplomas last May, only 6 percent had earned their degree in the normal four years, and only 21 percent in six years. Those numbers, incredibly, reflected improvement from prior rates.

In its problem and its challenge, Texas Southern has plenty of company. Nationally, the historically black colleges and universities have a six-year graduation rate of 38 percent, according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. That is slightly lower than the figure for black students at all other institutions, and roughly 40 percentage points lower than for blacks at elite schools. The situation amounts to a little-noticed crisis in the very institutions that, for their size, play a disproportionate role in educating African-Americans.

A half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, 40 years after Lyndon Johnson's speech endorsing the concept of affirmative action, and two years after the Supreme Court upheld racial diversity as a factor in admissions, the approximately 80 historically black colleges and universities still enroll more than 10 percent of the African-American students in higher education and award close to 20 percent of degrees.

These black institutions have produced leaders from Thurgood Marshall to Jesse Jackson to Spike Lee. Their step shows, marching bands, and fraternities and sororities have become integral elements of African-American culture. It is a commonplace in black churches and neighborhoods for parents to believe that their children will have better outcomes in black colleges than in mostly white ones, because the black schools provide a more nurturing, supportive environment, free of white presumptions that blacks are intellectual inferiors or expectations they should portray the role of hip-hop gangsta.

But what happens when the truism appears less and less true? What happens when an education emergency is ignored except by those enduring it?

These are precisely the questions Texas Southern has dealt with, particularly since Priscilla D. Slade became president in 1999. The university has its roots in the civil rights struggle, because it was created by the State of Texas in reaction to the lawsuit of a black man who had been denied admission to the state's all-white law schools.

From that rather cynical genesis, Texas Southern has gone on to educate such political figures as the Congressional members Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland. With about 11,000 students, 85 percent of them black, it teaches five times as many African-Americans as does the flagship campus of the University of Texas in Austin.

What pushed the six-year graduation rate nearly into single digits earlier this decade were factors, both educational and financial, that affect scores of black institutions nationwide. With the desegregation of colleges and universities in the South and the increased recruiting of black students by top universities, what W.E.B. DuBois famously called the ''talented tenth'' no longer heads to places like Texas Southern by default. In fact, the top 10 percent of graduates from any Texas high school are guaranteed admission to the state university system.

As a result, the students who come to Texas Southern arrive less prepared and sometimes less committed than their forebears. Roughly one-third of them require remedial classes before they can enter college-level courses. More than 100 of the available spaces in the Summer Academy went unclaimed, even though the program charges no tuition and provides a stipend for books that is worth several hundred dollars.

''WHY don't they attend? That's the question of the decade,'' said Dr. Jacqueline Fleming, the director of Texas Southern's academic center. ''The single biggest factor is a lack of motivation. Their world is BET, ghetto rap, going to school dressed like you're going to a club. They're here because their grandmother said to be here, or because their parole officer said it was this or jail.''

Having taught at Barnard College, Dr. Fleming has seen plenty of anti-intellectualism in more rarefied settings, too. But those students came from families with means and with multigenerational legacies of college education. More than 40 percent of Texas Southern's students represent the first generation in their families to attend college and more than one-quarter have annual household incomes below $20,000.

The economic impact hobbles black colleges and institutions themselves. For in higher education, the prevailing rule of fund-raising is that the rich get richer. Texas Southern has an endowment of $6 million; across town, Rice University has $3 billion. The best endowed historically black institution, Howard University in Washington, ranks 132nd in the nation with $371 million, according to a survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

The interest from a large endowment means money for scholarships, research grants and support services, among other things, and all are vital for institutions dealing primarily with students from the working class or below. The gap between the money available from federal Pell grants and even the modest costs here -- about $7,200 yearly for tuition, room and board for Texas residents -- has widened substantially over the past decade. Classes compete with jobs for priority. Dr. Bobbie Henderson, director of a center providing social services to students and their families, recently had to find housing for a dean's list student, already working at McDonald's, who had been reduced to living with her 16-month-old daughter in a car.

Against these obstacles, President Slade has undertaken a variety of efforts, from a partnership with a nearby high school to the Summer Academy to on-campus day care for students' children to several fund-raising drives. The radio and television host Tavis Smiley has given $1 million of a projected $10 million over 10 years to the journalism school, which now bears his name. Former President George H.W. Bush, a Houston resident, leads a capital campaign with a goal of $50 million. Some $15 million has already come in, and a new science building is under construction.

Without an array of wealthy alumni, Dr. Slade has turned to corporate leaders and private philanthropists in the city in a separate attempt to build up the paltry endowment. ''This is my hit list,'' she said in her office in late July, brandishing a roster of prominent people to call. A professor of accounting and dean of the business school before being named president, she makesher sales pitch based not on pity or compassion but on bottom-line competitiveness.

''You live in the city of Houston,'' she said, recalling a recent appeal to an executive. ''You have a business in the city of Houston. I'd venture that 10 percent of the people who work for you went to Texas Southern. We prepare individuals to work for you. You should want them to be as well prepared as possible. And you know who educates the largest number of those students.''


Articles by publication > By Subject > Back to Education Articles