In Praise of HBCUs

Recently, state longitudinal data systems have allowed researchers to look at students’ level of preparation prior to college and compare the college outcomes of similarly prepared students- giving a picture of which institutions are actually helping their students and which are merely benefiting from pre-college preparation. This paper provides evidence for the underappreciated efficacy of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), which often struggle with funding, enrollment, and low graduation rates. It is also the worst-titled good paper I have ever read.

Public Universities, Equal Opportunity, and the Legacy of Jim Crow: Evidence from North Carolina — by Charles T. Clotfelter, Helen F. Ladd, Jacob L. Vigdor

College attendance and completion in the U.S. are strongly correlated with race and socioeconomic background. Do public postsecondary institutions themselves exacerbate pre-college disparities, or reduce them? We address this question using longitudinal data linking the records of students at North Carolina’s public four-year universities to their public K-12 records. As a result of an institutional structure forged during the period of Jim Crow segregation, black students who attend the state’s public university system are likely to experience markedly more racial isolation in college than they did in middle school. Another, more positive consequence of this structure is to boost in-state public four-year college enrollment and graduation by African-American students relative to white students with similar backgrounds. Conditional on enrolling in one of the state’s public universities, however, black students lag behind whites in grades and graduation rates. Regarding socioeconomic background, we find that lower-status youth are less likely to enter the system and less likely to succeed once they enter than those with higher status. The socioeconomic gap in graduation rates among matriculants has, however, declined in recent years.

That is, the researchers find that…

a) Given a certain level of academic achievement in high school, black students are more likely to enroll in college. (This pattern, which has been observed using similar longitudinal data in Texas and in Caroline Hoxby’s studies of high achieving low-income students nationwide, is undoubtedly an important reason for black women’s relative economic  and educational advancement in recent years.)

b) Given a certain level of achievement in high school, black students are more likely to persist and graduate from college if they enroll in an HBCU than in a (more selective and predominantly white) North Carolina University.

It seems plausible that HBCUs are doing a better job with their student body than research universities. I can think of at least four reasons for this. But what does this have to do with the legacy of Jim Crow? It’s like writing a paper about Stanford’s research productivity in 2015 and calling it “the Legacy of the California Gold Rush.” The headline finding of this study is that black students at HBCUs are doing better- more likely to enroll in and get good grades in college- than white students with comparable 8th grade test scores. I know the whole “Legacy of Jim Crow” thing is just a way of signaling the authors are Serious Scholars who understand the Historical Context. But how about, “Good job, North Carolina HBCUs!” That would be a much more informative and accurate title.

The title is also wrong historically, of course. The majority of North Carolina’s HBCUs were founded immediately after the Civil War, as part of Radical Reconstruction, prior to Jim Crow. Rather than being some historical irony of a structure implemented as part of a racist programme later contributing to the amelioration of inequality, as the authors imply, they were established as part of a deliberate project of racial uplift for freedmen and freedwomen, primarily during the period of Northern military occupation (1865-1868). It’s just plain incorrect to describe this as the legacy of Jim Crow.

But back to the substantive question- why do HBCUs apparently do better with students who would drop out of more prestigious schools? Four reasons mentioned above-
A) Greater institutional commitment to teaching than research.
B) Greater institutional commitment to teaching students with poorer preparation
C) More comfortable cultural environment for students
D) Lower frustration for students with poorer preparation, due to being closer to the mean.

And one more, which of course is the main validity concern not discussed in the paper…
E) Easier grading.

It’s not even clear, however, that these first four factors would only be relevant for weaker black students. For example, the Meyerhoff Scholars program at the University of Maryland-Baltimore operated for many years as a segregated school-within-a-school for high-achieving Black students interested in STEM; it had, by both anecdotal account and some plausible research, much better outcomes for its targeted population than Ivy League schools. The students who attended UMD-Baltimore on a Meyerhoff scholarship were for example ten times as likely to get a STEM PhD and twice as likely to become a doctor as students who were offered the scholarship but turned down the program, most of whom went to more elite schools.

So it’s not as though there isn’t other evidence that would support the authors’ findings, instead of non sequitur historical allusions.

“Harvard’s Endowment and the Legacy of Puritans with Silly Hats,”

“The University of Pennsylvania’s contribution to biomedical research and Ben Franklin’s Ambassadorship to France,”

“Public Universities, Equal Opportunity, and the Legacy of Cheese: the Case of Wisconsin”

The last one actually might be a good paper.


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