Press Room SPEECHES
HBCUs and Higher Education: Beyond the Iron Triangle
Remarks of Arne Duncan to 2009 National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference
Archived Information


FOR RELEASE:
September 2, 2009

Thank you very much, John. John Wilson is a forceful and thoughtful advocate for HBCUs—and he already has begun to reinvigorate the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

It is an honor and a pleasure to be here, to see so many of the presidents and chancellors of HBCUs who have toiled so long and so effectively to guide their campuses through today's challenges and opportunities. You are all my heroes. But I especially want to acknowledge Mildred Higgins, the financial aid officer who came out of retirement to help students return to Xavier University of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. She is still on the job, despite having turned 90 on Friday. Her life is a testimony to a deep-seated commitment to expanding access for low-income minority students—a mission that is at the heart of the extraordinary story of HBCUs.

I want to both celebrate that extraordinary story tonight and talk about the vital role that HBCUs will play in the years ahead.

I was first introduced to HBCUs back in 1998. As John mentioned, I pretty much grew up in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago, working in my mother's after-school tutoring program. But I landed my first real job working in schools 18 years ago, in 1991, when my friend and mentor John Rogers Jr. hired me and my sister, Sarah, at the Ariel Foundation to oversee the foundation's I Have A Dream program. We adopted the entire sixth grade class at Shakespeare Elementary School, located across the street from my mother's after-school program. And the foundation had committed to seeing students through college, promising scholarships as an incentive.

When those students were seniors, in 1998, we packed them in a van and drove a group of students and their parents down to Talladega College in Alabama. It was the first time I had been to a historically black college—and let me tell you, I was wowed.

It wasn't a wealthy college but Talladega had a rigorous science, business, and liberal arts program, and it was a student-friendly institution. Like many colleges, it struggled to keep low-income students from dropping out. But 80 percent of its graduates—then and now—went on to pursue graduate degrees, one of the highest rates in the country.

The library had the famous Amistad Murals, which the African American artist Hale Woodruff had painted there in 1939 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the legendary slave revolt aboard the Amistad. And I remember the president of Talladega at the time, Marguerite Archie-Hudson, who met with us. She was a Talladega alumnus and knew firsthand how HBCUs had transformed the lives of their students for the better. Dr. Lucille Ish there is a living legend, and I appreciated her thoughtfulness and support of us so much.

That was my first personal glimpse at HBCUs. But in the years since, I've come to understand that Talladega was no exception. In fact, for decades, HBCUs have made enduring, even staggering contributions to American life. And this is a story of educational triumph over adversity that is too little known or appreciated outside the African American community.

As you know, most of America's great civil rights leaders were educated at HBCUs. I'm not just referring to Dr. King, but to Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, W.E.B. DuBois, Maynard Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman, Booker T. Washington, Congressman John Lewis, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Andy Young, and Doug Wilder. And let's not forget Lincoln University graduate Thurgood Marshall—who was forced to attend law school at Howard because the University of Maryland law school just down the road from here did not admit blacks at the time. When Thurgood Marshall got his law degree from Howard, he turned around and sued the University of Maryland. Thankfully, the young lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice won—and forced the entire university to desegregate.

But that's just the half of it. So many great African American artists, authors, and intellectuals came out of HBCUs. Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes. Jazz greats Branford Marsalis and Cannonball Adderley are HBCU graduates. So was the singer Leontyne Price. Student athletes like Wilma Rudolph and Althea Gibson—who competed at Wimbledon for the first time in 1951, while still a student at Florida A&M.

Pioneers in their profession—Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, and Sixty Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley—are HBCU graduates. Legendary inventors, like George Washington Carver, are too. One of my modern-day intellectual heroes, Professor William Julius Wilson, attended Wilberforce University on a church scholarship. And our newly nominated Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, went both to Xavier University of Louisiana and Morehouse School of Medicine.

Now I've just recited to you the Hall of Fame roll call of HBCUs—and it is an amazing honor roll. But what is most impressive about the HBCU record is not just your famous alumnus but rather that HBCUs, working with meager resources, almost single-handedly created an African-American professional class despite decades of Jim Crow discrimination.

As recently as a half-century ago, three-fourths of all African-American undergraduates enrolled in HBCUs. Today, with the integration of higher education, that number is at about 20 percent. Yet HBCUs have produced roughly half of all African American professionals and public school teachers.

Forty percent or more of all African Americans who receive degrees today in physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, and environmental sciences graduate from HBCUs. Upwards of 70 percent of doctors and dentists earn undergraduate degrees at historically black colleges and universities. Mildred Higgins' institution, Xavier University of Louisiana, still sends more African-American students to medical school than any college in the nation, including Harvard. That is why I've said—and why I repeat here tonight—that HBCUs cannot simply survive. They have to thrive.

Now it is no secret to anyone in this room that most HBCUs are facing steep challenges, especially as state budgets shrink in the midst of a recession. Endowments are undercapitalized, faculty salaries are low, financial aid is inadequate, and facilities are deteriorating. Far too few students arrive on campus ready for college coursework—and far too many students drop out without ever earning a degree. The former president of Stillman College, Cordell Wynn, summarized the issues facing HBCUs well when he said that "No other institution of higher learning has had to do so much, for so many, with so little."

Yet I want to suggest to you tonight that HBCUs face many of the same challenges and opportunities today as other institutions of higher education—only more so. And I believe that HBCUs have many valuable lessons to teach higher education about how it can move forward to face the new challenges of educating college students in a global economy.

I can tell you that many of the concerns I hear expressed today by HBCU college presidents and administrators are the same concerns I hear expressed by college presidents at public research universities, private liberal arts institutions, community colleges, and technical schools.

I often hear that managing the multiple missions of higher education today is akin to being caught in the infamous "iron triangle." Every college president and every governing board wants to simultaneously improve quality, increase access—and yet constrain costs. To college executives, these three sides of the iron triangle—quality, access, and cost—often seem like mutually conflicting choices. Elevating quality raises costs. Increasing access can dilute quality. And reducing costs impairs both quality and access.

In the standard formulation, the only way out of the iron triangle is to secure unlimited resources, either in the form of bigger endowments or state and federal support. Now the tension between these three goals is real—and I don't question for a minute that boosting resources for higher education is essential. As I'll talk about in a moment, I fully anticipate that HBCUs will in fact receive unprecedented federal support next year from the Recovery Act and the Fiscal 2010 appropriation bill now moving through Congress.

At the same time, I do not think that more resources alone are the answer to the challenges facing higher education or HBCUs. The reality is that states play a critical role in funding higher education, and statehouses are facing severe budget crises. For the foreseeable future, higher education leaders can no longer expect to rely on the traditional strategy of sustained economic growth and increased government revenues to pave the way for expanded enrollment.

A more promising long-term solution for breaking out of the iron triangle is to have college presidents and administrators make better and more imaginative use of efficiency, productivity improvements, and accountability. With enhanced productivity and accountability, many postsecondary institutions, including HBCUs, can boost quality, access, and constrain costs—all at the same time.

It is time—as President Obama has said—to work toward a new "culture of accountability" in our nation's schools. And it is especially vital that universities and colleges do a better job of measuring, tracking, and supporting students to elevate graduation rates, which have not budged, unfortunately, in decades.

It is simply a tragedy today that barely half of high school graduates in the bottom income quartile attend college. But it is even more troubling that only one in four low-income college students manage to graduate within six years. If we are serious as a country about ending cycles of poverty and giving every child the chance to fulfill their potential, that has to change. Moving forward, I think that higher education has much to learn from how HBCUs have met similar economic and academic challenges in the past.

President Obama, as you know, has set ambitious goals for higher education. He wants America to again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. And he wants every American to have at least one year of college or technical training.

The president and I believe higher education must play a leading role in driving our economic recovery and building a workforce that can remain competitive in the information age. Our college students today no longer compete with students from nearby universities or community colleges—they are competing with their peers in China, India, and Denmark.

The implications of the President's goals are unmistakable. An unprecedented number of Americans will not only have to enroll in but complete college. And this means that student populations with high dropout rates, especially minority students, will have to dramatically increase their college graduation rates. HBCUs will—and absolutely have to—play an essential role in meeting this challenge. This is not just about access—this is about attainment.

I have said repeatedly that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. And I can think of no one who can testify to that truth more powerfully than the founders of HBCUs and their successors here today. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that after the tribulations of the Civil War, the freedman rushed "not to the grog-shop but to the schoolroom—they cried for the spelling book as bread, and pleaded for teachers as a necessity of life."

There is a reason why Booker T. Washington walked 500 miles to the Hampton Institute to receive an education. There is a reason why W.E.B. DuBois said that "of all the civil rights . . . the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental." There is a reason, as President Obama said earlier this summer, that "the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools."

That reason is known to everyone in this room. Education is the great equalizer in America. It doesn't matter what your race, income, or zip code is—every child is entitled to a quality education. This fight is about so much more than education—it is a fight for social justice. And in a global economy where more and more jobs require a college degree, education is more important than ever to keeping African American students competitive and giving them a shot at the American Dream.

To achieve the President's agenda and begin closing the achievement gap, we have to make higher education more affordable, accessible, and successful. The need is urgent, the opportunity unique—and our department will do everything in its power to boost access and success in higher education.

The department's budget, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enacted earlier this year, provide the largest commitment to higher education funding since the GI Bill sent World War II-veterans to college and built the American middle class.

But HBCUs in particular need more funding to be successful. The President has proposed unprecedented increases in student aid for HBCU students, as well as additional resources to build HBCUs and other institutions serving under-represented groups. The House of Representatives also has proposed further funding for these institutions, and I am working with Congress to ensure that HBCUs receive the funding they need to succeed.

Apart from money targeted specifically to HBCUs, most of the new higher ed funding and expanded assistance to help students complete college will especially benefit low-income and minority students, including at HBCUs.

To free up money for more Pell Grants, we are shifting guaranteed student loans to direct lending—and we will be providing assistance to HBCU's to navigate that transition. For the first time, we want to index the size of Pell awards to the Consumer Price Index, plus an additional percentage point. The cash value of Pell Grant awards for low-income students will increase by more than 10 percent, and we are boosting the number of students receiving Pell Grants from 6 million to 7 million students.

Under the president's budget, we project that HBCU students and their institutions will receive an additional $80 million in Pell Grants—and 13,000 more students will be awarded grants, bringing the number of Pell recipients at HBCUs to almost 200,000 students next year.

To reduce students' need for expensive private student loans, we are also proposing to provide colleges with more flexible loan funds through a dramatic increase in the Perkins loan program, which is budgeted to go next year from $1 billion to $6 billion. Through this expansion, and by making the loans easier for you to administer, we can reach as many as 2.7 million new students and an additional 2,700 postsecondary institutions. Bill Taggart, who got his bachelor's at Howard and now heads our department's federal student aid division, is focused like a laser on making the transition to direct lending work to the benefit of HBCUs and their students.

As you know, we're also simplifying the hopelessly complex FASFA form to encourage more low-income students to apply for financial aid. The form itself has been a barrier to access—and that is going to change. And expanded loan forgiveness means that any student loan balance that remains after 10 years of working full-time at a public service job, including a teaching position, may be cancelled.

Finally, the President has proposed a new $2.5 billion College Access and Completion Fund to provide competitive grants to states to increase college success and completion, especially among low-income students. Under the President's proposal and Congressman Miller's bill, we will prioritize applications that serve under-resourced institutions like HBCUs.

Now it is no secret that one of the biggest problems confronting HBCUs is the high school-to-college pipeline. Many if not most freshmen are nowhere near college-ready when they arrive on campus. And when incoming students have to spend their first year in remedial classes, it drives up HBCU dropout rates and burns up those students' Pell Grants.

Our entire K-12 reform agenda is largely devoted to fixing the college pipeline. We are pushing four core reforms to build a seamless cradle-to-career pipeline. Specifically, we are providing incentives to states and districts to:

  • First, adopt college and career-ready standards and assessments. I am thrilled that 47 states have signed on this year to create college and career-ready standards in math and English Language Arts.
  • Second, we want states to recruit, reward, and retain effective teachers and principals—and place them in high-poverty schools, especially in high-needs subject areas. To close the achievement gap, we must first close the opportunity gap.
  • Third, we want to build better data systems to measure student success and use that data to inform classroom instruction and drive a cycle of continuous improvement.
  • And lastly, over time, we want states and districts to start the long-neglected task of turning around the nation's 5,000 lowest-performing schools. That includes some 2,000 high schools that produce about half of the dropouts in the country—and 75 percent of our dropouts among African-American students. That is unacceptable—we need dramatic change and we need it now. Our children only have one chance to get an education. We cannot wait because they cannot wait.

I would like to see HBCUs take a greater role in improving the pipeline to college by forming creative partnerships with districts. Just down the road from here, Howard University became the first university in the District to establish a charter school. And Howard University's Middle School of Mathematics and Science is doing a great job of boosting student achievement. In February, I visited Howard's school with your honoree tonight, Tom Joyner. He has established an innovative scholarship program for teachers at the school who are completing their licensure requirements through an alternative certification program at Howard. His long-time commitment to HBCUs is remarkable, and I thank you for recognizing him.

The need for better collaboration with HCBUs goes well beyond charter schools. The department's new $650 million Invest in Innovation Fund, which we call i3, provides new opportunities for universities to partner with districts to build innovative programs to improve college readiness.

That is exactly what we did in Chicago—and we had our greatest success with African-American students. In 2003, when I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, we created a new Department of Postsecondary Education to boost college readiness, access, and success. We built relationships with every university in the area and the city college system. Principals and counselors guided students through the financial aid process and filling out the dreaded FASFA form. And college coaches set up college tours, college fairs, and visits from college representatives.

The Chicago Public Schools system collaborated with seven local universities to win the largest GEAR UP grant in the country, which now serves over 10,000 students in 21 high schools. Two annual college fairs with HBCUs proved hugely successful, with students granted automatic admission and scholarships all in one night. Last year, those college fairs produced $26 million in scholarships

Chicago had just four minority students who won scholarships in 2004 in the Gates Millennium program sponsored by the United Negro College Fund. Last year, Chicago had more Gates scholarship winners than any city in the country—and most of our scholarship winners attended neighborhood schools.

Those partnerships changed outcomes. From 2004 to 2008, college enrollment rates rose for every ethnic group in the Chicago Public Schools. But enrollment rates rose fastest among African-American students. College enrollment rates for African-American students in Chicago increased 11 percent from 2004 to 2008. During the same time period, enrollment rates for black students fell nationwide by six percent. Together, we must reverse that disturbing national trend.

Now, I sometimes hear that my plans for improving the pipeline to college are too ambitious. Although we are providing $3.5 billion dollars over the next several years to fund the turnaround of chronically underperforming schools, skeptics say that no big school system can transform more than a handful of failing schools. And it is supposed to be just as difficult to meaningfully improve the quality of the teaching force.

After seven years as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I know that any large system is hard to reform. But I reject the fashionable pessimism that the status quo cannot change. And one of the reasons that I remain so optimistic about the capacity for transformational change is the record of HBCUs. Outside of the HBCU community, not many people know that HBCUs were created largely because there was a desperate need to train teachers and build schools for black students after the Civil War, when Jim Crow took hold in the South and Reconstruction ended.

In his famous essay, "The Talented Tenth," W.E.B. DuBois wrote that it has "been in the furnishing of teachers that the Negro college has found its peculiar function. Few persons realize how vast a work, how mighty a revolution has thus been accomplished. To furnish five millions and more people with teachers of their own race and blood, in one generation, was not only a very difficult undertaking, but a very important one."

At the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington, Washington was determined not just to train as many teachers as possible but to build them schoolhouses in which to teach the sons and daughters of former slaves. Working with donated labor and money from impoverished sharecroppers, and with the backing of Northern philanthropists like Julius Rosenwald, the Washington-Rosenwald school construction program built nearly 3,500 schools in 14 Southern states by 1927. Those schools employed over 10,000 teachers, who taught nearly half-a-million children. Clearly, the challenges we face now in turning around the nation's worst five percent of schools pale besides those that Washington and DuBois faced.

Today, schools of education at HBCUs face a new challenge—to turn out this next generation of African American teachers to serve in high-poverty urban and rural schools. We know that black teachers are more likely than their white peers to want to work in high-poverty, high-needs schools and are more likely to stay there than their white counterparts. Every day, African-American teachers are doing absolutely invaluable work in helping to close the insidious achievement gap.

Yet we also know that children of color have too few teachers of color. Nationwide, only about 8 percent of teachers are African-American, even though in our largest school districts, more than half the students are typically African American and Latino. And it does not speak well for the future that less than two percent of our nation's teachers are African American males.

I was delighted that a quarter of Spelman's female graduates applied last year to Teach for America, which was the largest single employer of Spelman seniors. And it was encouraging to learn that more than eight percent of Morehouse men applied to TFA last year. The truth, though, is that we still have a long, long way to go to get more black male teachers in the classroom. Of the nearly 27,000 bachelor degrees that HBCUs awarded to African-American students in 2007, males earned just a third of those degrees. That has to change.

We also must improve teacher preparation programs. In 2000, the national teacher-certification pass rate was 93 percent. But at HBCUs the comparable figure was about 80 percent.

In the late 1980s, HBCU schools of education faced similar challenges with the imposition of the National Teachers Examination as a licensure prerequisite—and many HBCUs launched test preparation programs and revised curricula to successfully meet that challenge. I know that HBCU schools of education can rise to the occasion again—and must, along with other schools of education, do a better job of establishing a database to track their graduates over time.

Now I don't want to sound naïve. I realize that managing for better outcomes with modest—and sometimes diminishing— resources is no small feat. But again, I don't subscribe to the notion that different outcomes can just be explained away by differences in resources.

Let me give you an example. Earlier this year, the American Enterprise Institute released a study which concluded that only 53 percent of students entering four-year colleges graduate within six years. Just as disturbing was the fact that graduation rates from institution to institution varied dramatically, even at colleges with similar admission standards, attracting similar students.

At Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, 51 percent of students graduate within six years. But other similar HBCUs graduated fewer than 20 percent of their students in six years. That is an unacceptable outcome for students. And just like other institutions of higher education, HBCUs cannot explain away big differences in graduation rates simply by reference to the usual suspects. The management practices of our colleges have to be part of the explanation—and part of the solution.

I want to conclude by suggesting that HBCUs, despite their modest resources, may be better positioned than some institutions of higher ed to develop a stronger culture of accountability in the years ahead. During their 130-year history, HBCUs have often accomplished what seemed impossible, educating generations of ill-prepared students on shoestring budgets.

And so I'd like to turn the question of accountability on its head for a minute, and ask, how did HBCUs produce such a remarkable record—and what lessons can other institutions of higher ed and HBCUs themselves learn from that record?

One of the challenges that HBCUs have faced since their inception—and still face today—is that their students too often receive an inadequate education in high school and arrive on campus with poor skills. More than half of HBCU students are the first members of their families to attend college. They have little family tradition of being away from home, budgeting for studying time, and immersing themselves in researching and writing college-level papers. And they have few financial resources to fall back on if a crisis hits at home.

But the founders of HBCUs and their successors had an animating insight that helped tens of thousands of students begin to catch up and eliminate their academic gaps. HBCU advocates recognized that non-cognitive skills like perseverance, self-control, grit, punctuality, treating others with respect, the ability to defer gratification, and being well-spoken played a huge role in determining whether students persisted in college and would one day flourish on the job.

Long before researchers documented that non-cognitive skills were often as important in determining success as book smarts, HBCUs devoted special attention to forming the character and habits of mind that helped students succeed. As an 18-year old at Morehouse College, Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way in the Maroon Tiger, the campus newspaper: "Intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate."

During their first half-century, HBCUs were far more prescriptive about student conduct and character than other institutions of higher education—so much so that scholars have described the early African-American leaders of HBCUs as "Black Victorians" and "Ebony Puritans." W.E.B DuBois, who attended Harvard after his years at Fisk, later said that "At Fisk, we had character dinned into our ears. At Harvard we never mentioned it."

As decades passed, HBCUs inevitably became less prescriptive about student decorum. Yet even today when a freshman arrives at Morehouse College he gets "The Speech." It's the same speech that Martin Luther King heard, that Maynard Jackson listened to, that Spike Lee absorbed. And the speech is about what it means to be a Morehouse Man.

The president of Morehouse tells those excited and nervous freshmen about how they are to comport themselves on and off campus. He tells them of the expectation that they will excel and display ethical leadership—and go on to give something back to society. Just last April, at a college town hall meeting, Dr. Robert Franklin, Morehouse's current president, told students that "Morehouse men must be so sensitive to the presence of disorder, mediocrity and injustice that they cannot sleep well at night until they tip the scale toward justice."

Now I can confirm that what W.E.B. DuBois wrote 60 years ago about Fisk and Harvard is still true. There still is no speech at Harvard about what it means to be a Harvard man, there still is no admonition to be impatient with mediocrity and social injustice.

Of course, in the modern era, HBCU students have much more freedom than their predecessors. But as Michael Lomax of the United Negro College Fund has pointed out, a new generation of gap-closing secondary schools in urban areas has in fact adopted wholesale the HBCU model of emphasizing both cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

High-performing schools like the University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, the KIPP school network, Urban Prep in Chicago, and the Achievement First schools all carefully prescribe student conduct. They celebrate both good schoolwork and good character. At Amistad Academy in New Haven, a school motto that could be torn straight from the HBCU playbook is "We sweat the small stuff."

And these gap-closing schools learned one last lesson from HBCU's about boosting minority achievement. They learned that a teacher can be a prescriptive and strong mentor as long as students know that he or she cares deeply about the student's development and provides the one-on-one attention that all our students' need. As a child, I learned in my mother's afterschool program that a good tutoring program is a good thing. But a good tutoring program with a caring adult is a great thing. It can literally change the course of a child's life.

Now we all know that colleges and universities are not going to go back to the days where college administrators enforced parietal rules and visiting privileges in dorms. But the basic insight that non-cognitive skills matter is still true—and it's just as relevant at research universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges as at HBCUs.

Consider the $1 billion Gates Millennium Scholars Program, administered by the United Negro College Fund. It is the largest private minority scholarship program in the country—and it has been a huge success. Some 5,000 Gates Scholars currently attend over 900 schools, and Gates Scholar recipients have a graduation rate of almost 80 percent—which is higher than the graduation rate of high-income students in the U.S. But the Gates scholarships aren't just four-year, last-dollar scholarships. The program also offers leadership training, mentoring, and assistance from counselors who help students navigate the problems of going to college.

Other HBCUs also are creating a culture of accountability by reinforcing habits for success. At Spelman College, professors still do something that would seem hopelessly Old School on many campuses today: They keep track of student attendance. And professors will refer a young woman to the dean, vice president, or even the president if she starts skipping class.

Philander Smith College in Arkansas developed its own approach to boost retention and completion. In 2007, college president Walter Kimbrough launched a campus-wide Black Male Initiative to reduce dropout rates after he discovered that just 11 percent of black male students were graduating in six years. For relatively little money, Philander Smith provided mentoring, lectures, and special events for black men. The college even held a "Swagger Like Us" fashion contest, and a session on how to tie a tie for those students who may not have learned to do so growing up. In just two years, the six-year graduation rate for black males reported by the college has more than doubled, to 24 percent. There is still a long way to go. But that's the kind of progress and momentum that we have to replicate.

Yet other HBCUs are creating a culture of accountability by building stronger and more effective developmental education classes. Now ultimately, I want to see colleges and universities get out of the catch-up business altogether. But for now, all levels of higher ed have to do a much better job of accelerating and targeting developmental instruction.

At present, remedial instruction too often is the Bermuda Triangle of higher education. Students sail into class but they never seem to come out— and no one knows what happened to them along the way, or what classroom interventions were effective and which were ineffective.

At Elizabeth State University in North Carolina they have demystified developmental courses and set up a system to carefully track students to boost retention. Instead of having inexperienced adjuncts teach introductory and developmental courses, Elizabeth State has some of its top professors teach the classes. Students are required to attend sessions on how to correctly apply for federal financial aid. And when a student drops out, the university calls the student to find why they quit—and encourages them to re-enroll.

One last story: At the start of my talk, I mentioned Xavier University of Louisiana's outstanding record in enrolling graduates in medical school. But that is not the whole story. In the early 1970s, ten students or fewer from Xavier were enrolling each year in medical school –and the students who did enroll were sadly unprepared. A group of Xavier's science faculty members decided to do something about it. In 1977, they got federal and foundation support to create intensive summer science programs to boost the skills of high school seniors in New Orleans. They redesigned Xavier's entry-level science courses—and developed special workbooks with plain English definitions of scientific terms for incoming students with inadequate math or science preparation.

When the professors noticed that struggling students were not being monitored closely, they required students to meet weekly with academic advisors and report their grades. And today, each summer a letter is sent to every student's home, containing a chart that compares the student's grades to those of recent Xavier graduates who were accepted at grad schools. By 1999, Xavier University of Louisiana was sending nearly 100 seniors a year to medical school.

Now these are just a handful of illustrations of how HBCUs are already fostering a culture of accountability that can help pave the way for other postsecondary institutions too. And for all the hard-won triumphs of college presidents to boost enrollment, it is worth remembering that it is cheaper to keep her—or him. Postsecondary institutions typically expend $2,000 to $3,000 to recruit a new full-time student but spend much less to retain a student.

I recognize that improving accountability and retention may not be seen as the glamorous work associated with being a college leader or the Secretary of Education. Few students come home from class one day to say "Ma, when I grow up, do you think I could be an administrator?"

I am not going to kid you. When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I did not always welcome phone calls from the nice man at the U.S. Department of Education. That's because our department has historically been a compliance machine, not an engine of innovation.

I am determined to change that historical relationship. I want the department to provide incentives to imaginative reformers at HBCUs and other universities and colleges to undertake far-reaching programs to improve outcomes for our students. And increasing graduation rates is critical to elevating achievement and readying students to compete in the information age.

When resources are limited, it's a challenge to institute ambitious reforms and expand the institutional research needed to measure and track outcomes. But the record of HBCUs and of higher education writ large gives many reasons for optimism. Think of how higher ed has responded to the challenges of Jim Crow, the Depression, World War II, the oil crisis, and 9/11.

I believe that higher education and HBCUs can adapt successfully once again. With your help, you courage, and your commitment, we can transform higher education. No one has done more to help close the achievement gap than HBCUs—and no one will do more in the years ahead to make our long-sought dream of equal educational opportunity a reality. Thank you for all that you have done—and for your continued commitment to the cause of equality.

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Last Modified: 09/03/2009