Historically black colleges and universities have encountered criticism from pundits who suggest they are no longer relevant.
These critics fail to recognize that the economic impact of HBCUs is significant.
Economic growth is critical to ensuring Americans have the resources to save, purchase homes and support small businesses. This is particularly true for underserved communities with limited federal, state and local investment.
Since their inception, historically black colleges have played an important role in supporting local and state economies and preparing graduates to compete in the global economy.
The United Negro College Fund recently quantified the impact that HBCUs have on the country. Its report, HBCUs Make America Strong: The Positive Economic Impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, provides a powerful counternarrative.
According to the report, HBCUs have a nearly $15 billion annual impact on the nation. Moreover, HBCUs created over 134,000 jobs and their alumni generate over $130 billion throughout their lifetimes.
The report also provides a detailed state-by-state analysis. For example, HBCUs in Maryland have a $1 billion impact on the state and have created more than 9,000 jobs. In North Carolina, the economic impact nearly surpasses $2 billion, while creating more than 15,000 jobs. Higher-education experts believe the findings highlight HBCUs’ importance.
“I think the data from UNCF’s groundbreaking report on the impact that HBCUs have on their local, state and national economy is compelling because it really helps to document not only the continued relevance of black schools, but also how they impact their communities — far and wide,” said Dr. Robert T. Palmer, interim chair and associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the School of Education at Howard University.
“This report provides further evidence that HBCUs are a rich and critical part of the fabric of not only the United States’ higher education system, but also society at large,” added Palmer, who has written extensively on issues that impact HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.
The UNCF report comes at a momentous time. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently passed H.R. 4508, the Promoting Real Opportunity Success and Prosperity through Education Reform Act (PROSPER), along party lines. The bill contains several provisions that will shape the future of HBCUs.
“Ironically, the arrival of this report coincides with the bill that Republicans introduced in the House as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965,” Howard University’s Palmer continued. “One of the provisions that is particularly concerning about this bill is a proposal that would limit the eligibility of minority-serving institutions to access Title III funding if they fail to graduate or transfer 25 percent or more of their student populations.”
The issues raised by Palmer mirror concerns from advocates that the bill could hamper HBCUs’ ability to receive Title III funding.
Considering the findings from the UNCF report, it’s important that the next Higher Eduation Act bill doesn’t unnecessarily hinder HBCUs’ ability to educate students and stimulate local and state economies. HBCUs are a critical piece to a larger economic puzzle.
Thus, a major shift in policies could inadvertently harm the economy. It’s important to note that because HBCUs serve traditionally marginalized communities, the long-term effects could be sizable.
Increasingly, HBCU advocates and researchers are chronicling the role they play in producing skilled workers. For example, my colleague Dr. Ramon B. Goings and I are writing a book, The Way Forward: How HBCUs Cultivated Black Intellectualism and Economic Growth, to highlight their important role in generating wealth within the black community. The book will examine how HBCUs have survived while educating a new cadre of leaders.
For rural, suburban and urban enclaves, HBCUs produce talented practitioners who support local businesses. If any of these institutions were forced to close, communities would suffer economically.
There is an undeniable connection between state economies and HBCUs. For this reason, state leaders should carefully consider how to aid, not harm, HBCUs’ ability to stimulate the economy.
UNCF’s findings highlight why a bipartisan, bicameral HEA bill must include provisions that support efforts from HBCUs to create entrepreneurs, support small businesses and build wealth within the black community. Any effort to discourage HBCUs’ growth could have a negative impact on vulnerable communities and cloud the nation’s economic outlook.
Dr. Larry J. Walker is a researcher focusing on issues that affect the academic performance and socio-emotional functioning of students throughout the education pipeline. Previously, he was a congressional fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and legislative director for former Congressman Major R. Owens.
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