Obama at Morehouse College: Visit highlights groundbreaking report on HBCUs, challenges facing grads

By David Pendered

Almost overlooked in the discussion over President Obama’s commencement address Sunday at Morehouse College is a new report that breaks ground in the discussion of historically black colleges and universities.

President Obama delivers the commencement address Sunday at Morehouse College. Credit: whitehouse.com

President Obama delivers the commencement address Sunday at Morehouse College. Credit: whitehouse.com

The study, “The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” reveals a disconnect between criticism and reality in terms of graduation rates, as well as equity issues for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

Obama’s introductory joke in his commencement remarks underscored the challenges facing today’s graduates: “I know some of you are graduating summa cum laude. I know some of you are graduating magna cum laude. I know some of you are just graduating thank the Lordy.”

Obama also addressed the financial pressures of today’s graduates: “With all those student loans you’ve taken out, you’ve got to make some money … no one expects you to take a vow of poverty.” But that doesn’t eliminate the duty to serve the community by following the example of earlier Morehouse Men who, Obama said, “laid the stones for the path we now walk.”

The study contends it is true that HBCUs lag the national average for graduation rates, as has been widely discussed. But a fact that’s less observed is the role HBCUs perform as a gateway to college for many poor and first-generation college students – including a growing proportion of Hispanic and Asian students – who historically face many obstacles in gaining higher education, the study says.

Morehouse College Valedictorian Betesegaw Tadele, an Ethiopian who graduated with a 3.99 grade point average in computer science, receives honors for his work. Credit: whitehouse.com

Morehouse College Valedictorian Betesegaw Tadele, an Ethiopian who graduated with a 3.99 grade point average in computer science, receives honors for his work. Credit: whitehouse.com

The report also discerns that HBCU institutional support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students lags national comparisons, but is increasing.

The study’s author, Marybeth Gaston, of the University of Pennsylvania, is a regular writer in national publications. Gaston has been quoted of late to provide context for the broader policy implications of the nation’s first African American president delivering the first commencement address at an all-male HBCU.

This month, Gaston released a study titled, “The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Gaston led a team of six researchers to produce the 18-page document that is the first one published by Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

President Obama listens as Morehouse College President Dr. John S. Wilson, Jr. reads the proclamation awarding an honorary law degree to Obama. Credit: whitehouse.com

President Obama listens as Morehouse College President Dr. John S. Wilson, Jr. reads the proclamation awarding an honorary law degree to Obama. Credit: whitehouse.com

The opening page presents the report’s thesis:

  • “Before turning to the facts and figures, we ask you to keep one thing in mind: In many places where these data show HBCUs lagging behind their national counterparts, the disconnect reflects less on the institutions themselves than on the tendency in the United States to invest in students who need the least help instead of those who need the most.
  • “What is striking is how successful HBCUs have been in educating traditionally underserved students despite (sic) the many obstacles these institutions face.”

Gaston said in an interview broadcast on NPR that the criticism of NBCUs for low graduation rates does not reflect the fact that NBCUs serve students who otherwise may never have gained admission. The report showed that the nation’s 105 HBCUs comprise 3 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities, and have enrollments that represent 11 percent of the nation’s black students.

President Obama receives an honorary law degree from Morehouse College President John S. Wilson. Credit: whitehouse.com

President Obama receives an honorary law degree from Morehouse College President John S. Wilson. Credit: whitehouse.com

While white enrollment at HBCUs has remained relatively constant, at 13 percent for 20 years, Gaston said Hispanic and Latino enrollment has increased by 123 percent and Asian enrollment has rise by 60 percent.

The tension over college funding boiled over in March in a situation one headline described as a “nuclear option.”

Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, recommended that HBCUs consider suing the Obama administration over cuts to a federal tuition program called Plus Loan. HBCUs have lost a reported $100 million in tuition revenue since the administration cut back on the program because of high rates of default.

An editorial in hbcudigest.com, titled “HBCUs suing Obama administration – The nuclear option aimed at the wrong enemy,” called instead for solutions that reach further. The editorial called on states to reform access to higher education and solutions other than debt to pay for higher education.

President Obama acknowledges the applause of fellow Morehouse Men after he received an honorary law degree. Credit: whitehouse.com

President Obama acknowledges the applause of fellow Morehouse Men after he received an honorary law degree. Credit: whitehouse.com

Gaston’s report showed that HBCUs “attitudes toward their LGBT populations are changing rapidly,” and cited four examples – including Spelman College, and Bowie State University, where First Lady Michelle Obama on Saturday presented the commencement address.

Of Spelman, the report noted: “Spelman College has been an exemplar among HBCUs, sponsoring a national conference in 2011 on HBCUs and LGBT issues.”

Obama, incidentally, appointed last year a noted LGBT advocate, and Morehouse graduate, to the White House Board of HBCUs: the Rev. George Walker, Jr.

Obama mentioned gay and lesbian parents as among the groups who face negative judgments that can shape positive outlooks: “Your experiences give you special insights that today’s leaders need. If you tap into them, that experience will give you empathy.”

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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