The flaw at historically black colleges and universities: dreadful graduation rates


Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have a long history in the United States.

They played a significant role, for example, in educating Black veterans returning from WWII. According to the journalist and historian Edward Humes, writing in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 12% of Black veterans went to college on the GI Bill, with upward of 90% of those attending HBCUs.

Now, in the wake of renewed black activism, HBCUs appear to be on a roll.

In the wake of increased calls for racial justice after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, six HBCUs, Howard University, Xavier University of Louisiana, Tuskegee University,  Hampton University, Morehouse College and Spelman College, announced in July that they had received substantial donations from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Howard received $40 million, Hampton, $30 million, Xavier, Morehouse and Tuskegee, $20 million.

The previous month, Reed Hastings, the co-founder and CEO of Netflix, and his wife, Patty Quillin, said they were donating $120 million to Spelman College, Morehouse College and the United Negro College Fund.

Frosting on the cake came on August 11 when Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a Howard University graduate, became the first graduate of a HBCU to become a vice-presidential candidate of the Democratic or Republican party.

“I became an adult at Howard University,” Harris told the Washington Post in 2019. “Howard very directly influenced and reinforced — equally important — my sense of being and meaning and reasons for being.”

“HBCUs have a tremendous record,” Hastings and Quillin said in a news release announcing their gifts.

The 104 HBCUs do have a good record in some things, but not in one critical area, graduation rates. Their overall performance here is abysmal and large gifts to a few HBCUs likely won’t change that.

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) has tried to sugarcoat the situation by asserting that “…in their most important function—enrolling and graduating college students—HBCUs perform far better than their small size and lack of resources would lead one to expect.” The problem is that the UNCF data is misleading.

For example, a 2018 UNCF report noted that “Florida HBCUs represent just 4 percent of the state’s four-year colleges and universities but enroll 9 percent of all black undergraduates and award 18 percent of all bachelor’s degrees to black college graduates.” More meaningful data is the graduation rate at individual HBCUs.

There are HBCUs located in 19 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents 47 public HBCUs, the graduation rate for HBCUs is only 35%.

When the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education surveyed 64 HBCUs in 2014, only five graduated more than 50 percent of their students within six years: Spelman- 69%; Howard, 65%; Hampton, 59%; Morehouse, 55%; Fisk, 52%. At seven HBCUs, fewer than one in five Black students earned a bachelor’s degree within six years.

The current U.S. Department pf Education’s College Scorecard shows an improvement in the graduation rate at Spelman, but declines at the other four schools: Spelman- 77%; Howard, 61%; Hampton, 50%; Morehouse, 52%; Fisk, 41%.

The Scorecard reports appalling graduation rate at some other HBCUs as low as:

  • Alabama State University, Montgomery, AL – 31%
  • University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C. – 28%
  • American Baptist College, Nashville, TN – 27%
  • Shaw University, Raleigh, NC – 27%
  • Langston University, Langston. OK – 23%

Then there’s Shorter College, a private, faith-based, two-year liberal arts college in N. Little Rock, AR. The average annual cost, which includes tuition, living costs, books, and fees minus the average grants and scholarships for federal financial aid recipients, is $16,044. The college says on its website, “The goals of faculty, staff and administrators are the same: student success.” But its graduation rate is only 8%, according to the College Scorecard.


In comparison, about 62% of students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in the United States in the fall of 2012 completed that degree at the same institution within 6 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In other words, by 2018 some 62 percent of students had completed a bachelor’s degree at the same institution where they started in 2012.

The problem of pitiful graduation rates at so many HBCUs is compounded by the debt accrued by Black students who don’t graduate. It’s hard enough for many graduates to pay off their college debt. Median total debt after graduation from Fisk College, for example, is $28,000 – $30,000, which translates into monthly loan payments of $291- $317 on a standard 10-year payment plan.

But if a student incurs $30,000 of college debt and never earns a degree, the burden is substantially greater. When they drop out, they don’t get the better job or the wage increase that graduates get initially and over time. One result is that the default rate on federal student loans is three times higher for students who drop out without a diploma. Adding insult to injury, drop-outs in default don’t have access to federal student aid that could help them go back and finish school for a degree.

Recent research shows one reason for poor graduation rates at HBCUs could well be poor preparation during students’ K-12 schooling.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported in October 2021 that in a year when many test dates were postponed or canceled due to the global pandemic and when many colleges and universities made standardized test scores optional, only 1.2 million members of the 2021 graduating class of high school seniors took the ACT college entrance examination. This was down from 1.6 million in 2020 and more than 2 million in 2017.

For the Class of 2021, the average score on the ACT dropped to 20.3 on a scale of 1 to 36. This was the lowest average score in more than a decade. For the fourth year in a row, the average score for African American students dropped. This year, the average score was 16.3, down from 16.7 in 2020 and 17.1 in 2017. The average score for Whites also dropped to 21.7 from 22.0 in 2020 and 22.4 in 2017.

Based on score results, the American College Testing organization calculates the percentage of students who took the ACT test who are adequately prepared to take on a college-level curriculum. In 2021, 28 percent of Black test takers were rated ready for college-level courses in English, compared to 67 percent of Whites. In mathematics, only 10 percent of Backs were rated college-ready compared to 44 percent of Whites. In science, ACT data shows 11 percent of Blacks were ready for college-level courses compared to 44 percent of Whites. In reading, 18 percent of Blacks achieved the minimal benchmark for college readiness compared to 53 percent of Whites. All of these scores for college readiness for both Blacks and Whites were down from 2020.

The most striking statistic is that only 6 percent of all Black test takers were rated ready for college-level courses in all four areas of English, mathematics, science, and reading. Whites were more than five times as likely as Blacks to be prepared for college-level work in all four areas.

Recent research reveals that the graduation rate at HBCUs continues to disappoint.

According to the Dec. 6, 2021 edition of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, new data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that in October 2020, there were 2,591,000 African Americans enrolled in U.S. higher education. At that time there were 17,674,000 students of all racial and ethnic groups enrolled in higher education. Thus, African Americans made up 14.7 percent of all enrollments.

But breaking down the data by year of enrollment, the Journal found that there a high degree of attrition in African Americans enrollments. For example, African Americans in 2020 made up 17.5 percent of all first-year students at undergraduate colleges and universities. For students in their second year of undergraduate study, African Americans were 15. 3 percent of all enrollments. For those in their third year of undergraduate studies, African Americansn made up 15.0 percent of all enrollments. But by the fourth year of undergraduate study, African Americans were only 10.7 percent of all enrolled students.

In 2020, there were 711,000 African American first-year students. That same year, there were only 220,000 Black students in their fourth year of study.

At two-year colleges, African Americans were 16.9 percent of all entering students in 2020. But Blacks were just 15 percent of students who were enrolled in a second year of study.

So it seems clear that efforts to reduce the racial gap in college enrollments and degree attainments, must not only address initial access but must focus on retention efforts for African American students.

If wealthy philanthropists and HBCUs really want to help Black college students, they will put money and effort into ensuring that Black students get a K-12 education that prepares them for college and that HBCU students graduate with a good education. HBCUs that fail this test are doing their students no favors, undercutting the very people they claim to champion.

3 thoughts on “The flaw at historically black colleges and universities: dreadful graduation rates

  1. This article was informative. I had no idea that HBCU graduation rates were so low. Hopefully the generous donations will be used for programs to support the socioeconomic reasons that contribute to a Black student’s decision to dropout ….such as the need to take on extra jobs to meet tuition costs and support family creating stress and disconnect from college life. In addition to more financial assistance there maybe a need for a support network of faculty and peer mentoring, social events and academic and career workshops to explore time management, note taking financial literacy, etc.
    “Closing” HBCU’s is a suggestion that gives me great concern if our current administration is successful in their goal to rescind guidelines that encourage colleges to racially diversify their campuses.

    • I agree that there is a need to address socioeconomic reasons for high dropout rates at many HBCUs, but I also think schools that take students’ money and consistently fail to educate them should not continue to suck up student loan money, leaving too many young people in debt and with nothing to show for it.

  2. It is not a surprise that only 6% of Blacks are ready for college level courses. The surprise is that faculty and administrators at HBCU are not doing anything about this. They try to treat all students the same by allowing them to enroll in the same level classes as their peers who are prepared for these classes.
    Funding should be earmarked for programs to get these students college ready in their first year of enrollment. They should not be allowed to take out student loans until they are college ready.
    So monies should be given for these students to enroll and attend for a year – to take college ready courses.
    Once they have passed then they could be given full college admittance .

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