Changing the HBCU Narrative: From Corrective Action to Creative Investment—Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan at the HBCU Symposium at the North Carolina Central University Centennial

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Last September, I had the opportunity to speak at the National HBCU conference in Washington, DC, at which many of you were present. I shared with you my conviction that HBCUs must not merely survive but thrive. Today, I want to update you on what we and HBCUs, working together, have accomplished since last fall—and speak to the challenges that remain.

As you know, President Obama has set an ambitious goal for the nation. He wants America to again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. That goal is the North Star for all of our education efforts. Reaching it will require institutions of higher education to dramatically boost college completion—by the end of the decade, our national college degree attainment rate must rise from 40 percent to 60 percent.

The math here is pretty simple: The president's goal can only be attained if an unprecedented number of Americans enroll in and complete college—whether it is a four-year degree, a two-year degree, or a certificate. And that means that student populations with high dropout rates, especially minority students, will have to exponentially increase their college graduation rates. As I said last September, HBCUs will—and absolutely must—play a critical leadership role in meeting this challenge. This is not just about access—this is about attainment.

It is true that HBCUs have been under-resourced for decades. And no one knows the obstacles confronting HBCUs better than you. At too many HBCUs, endowments are undercapitalized. Faculty salaries are too low. Financial aid is inadequate. Facilities are deteriorating.

Sadly, far too few students arrive on campus ready for college coursework—and far too many students drop out without earning a degree. As Cordell Wynn, the former president of Stillman College, said of HBCUs, "no other institution of higher learning has had to do so much, for so many, with so little."

That daily challenge—of seeking to do more with less—is real. I don't minimize for a second that tough assignment, especially in today's economy. Yet for all of the longstanding issues that HBCUs face, I am convinced that HBCUs have much to teach other institutions of higher education about access and retention.

As I said last September, it is HBCUs that, over a period of decades, have established a remarkable record of working with students who were the first members of their families to attend college and who often arrived on campus ill-prepared for college work.

A lot has happened since I spoke at the national HBCU conference last September. But I can report that HBCU's are receiving unprecedented attention and support at the highest levels of the administration.

In February, at a memorable gathering at the White House, President Obama signed a new executive order promoting excellence, innovation, and sustainability at HBCUs. That executive order re-authorizes the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. John Wilson directs the White House Initiative—and he has been an outstanding leader and tireless advocate for HBCUs.

The President's Executive Order did two things that I want to call to your attention today. First, it brings to bear all the resources of the federal government on behalf of HBCUs. As the President said when he signed the order, the mission of strengthening America's Historically Black Colleges and Universities isn't a task that falls to HBCU presidents "or to the Department of Education alone… agencies across the federal government [will] help support this mission."

Second, the Executive Order calls for a more explicit and re-imagined partnership with the private sector to strengthen the capacity of HBCUs. The Department of Education will work with the White House Initiative to place more emphasis on the productive work carried out by HBCUs—whether it is research, community outreach, or empowering ill-prepared students to become competitive achievers. By drawing more attention to the extraordinary accomplishments of HBCUs, we seek to shift the narrative of HBCUs in the philanthropic sector—from an appeal centered on the need for corrective contributions to an appeal centered on creative investment.

We are not going to be passive in Washington about promoting that new narrative. There were years in the past when it was somewhat unusual for the Secretary of Education to deliver a commencement address at an HBCU. Last month, I was deeply honored to speak at Xavier's commencement in New Orleans. But let me tell you—Xavier, I was not such a catch. Thirteen senior administration officials spoke at HBCU commencements this year, including the President and the First Lady. I think that must be some kind of record!

Now, we are not just talking the talk—although we did a lot of that in the last month. The fact is we are walking the walk—and will continue to do so.

In February, Congress enacted the President's historic Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act. It invests more than $40 billion in Pell Grants to ensure that all eligible students receive an award. And for the first time, those awards will be indexed to keep up with inflation.

To put this legislation in perspective, the new law—coupled with the funding provided in the Recovery Act and the President's first two budgets—more than doubles the total amount of funding for Pell Grants since President Obama took office. Over the course of the next decade, we project that nearly 60,000 additional Pell Grant awards will go to African-American students—and 21,000 of those Pell Grants will go to students at HBCUs.

Other far-reaching changes in the law are going to make it easier for more than a million borrowers to pay off their student loan debt after they graduate. And I am thrilled that this new law provides HBCUs with $850 million over the next decade in mandatory funding to renew, reform, and expand programs so that all students at these institutions get every chance to rise to their full potential. This legislation will help shape the future of HBCUs for decades to come.

Let me repeat what I said a moment ago: We want to revise the public narrative around HBCUs. It's a narrative that has been so incomplete, so remiss in celebrating success and creative investment. And right here in North Carolina, the state's 11 HBCUs are demonstrating the power of collaboration and showing what successful partnerships look like. Last year, North Carolina's HBCUs enrolled more than 42,000 students and awarded over 6,700 degrees. Those numbers are a powerful testament that the state's HBCUs are changing the lives of tens of thousands of African-American students for the better.

But North Carolina's HBCUs have been leaders in other areas as well. To cite one example of innovative collaboration, the North Carolina-SAGE consortium is offering students at the state's 11 HBCUs the opportunity to study abroad. That program allows students to take advantage of internship opportunities outside the U.S.—and helps prepare students to work for businesses, non-profits, and NGOs. In the era of the global economy, those experiences are invaluable.

The state's HBCUs have also led the way in showing how to smoothly transition to Direct Lending. Congress enacted the transition to DL earlier this year, and that much-needed transition has literally made it possible to free up tens of billions of dollars to expand financial aid for low-income students that formerly went to subsidize banks. We are determined that this transition will happen smoothly—and we will provide the technical support and training necessary to ensure an orderly switchover. As you know, the department has assigned a special FSA representative to each of the 45 HBCUs transitioning to Direct Lending. I'm pleased to report that all 45 HBCUs are on target for a successful transition.

Here in North Carolina, HBCUs have shown the way. Four of North Carolina's public HBCU's have used Direct Lending for over ten years. Three private HBCUs have done so for at least five years. And HBCU's now transitioning to Direct Lending are meeting their milestones. One of them, Shaw University, is already originating direct loans. North Carolina's example is showing that direct lending is an effective and student-friendly process for getting funds to students. And with the addition of our simplification of the FASFA form, current high school seniors will have a much easier time applying for financial aid. It was crazy that the form itself had become a barrier to entry—and we were glad to be able to change that in a significant way.

Why is it so important to get these things right? To get more money to students in need, to share best practices in resolving common challenges like retention and financial stability?

The answer to that question is known to everyone in this room. It is the same reason why Booker T. Washington walked 500 miles to the Hampton Institute to receive an education.

The reason for Washington's long walk is that education is meant to be the great equalizer in America—it doesn't matter what your race, income or zip code, every child is entitled to a quality education.Education is the civil rights issue of our generation—and institutions of higher education and the government must do everything in their power to help realize the dream of equal educational opportunity.

The fight for civil rights is not a sometime thing. Our administration is working actively to ensure compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state higher education desegregation plans. We will continue to work with governors and state higher education officials to reach agreement on what must still be done to eliminate the vestiges of formerly segregated systems and enhance our HBCUs. And we will not close any of these cases until the vestiges of state-imposed segregation have been completely eliminated.

I want to address two great challenges for HBCUs as we move ahead. First, I want to see HBCUs taking the lead in improving teacher preparation programs and training a new generation of minority students, especially black males, to teach in our nation's public schools.

Outside of the HBCU community, not many people know that most HBCUs were established a century ago for the purpose of training a generation of black teachers. Black educators in the South used to have a saying about the importance of teachers. It went: "As is the teacher, so is the school."

I think our elders were absolutely right. As all of you know, talent matters tremendously in the classroom—and that is why recruiting and training a new generation of great teachers is essential to closing the achievement gap. Ambrose Caliver, the first African-American research specialist hired by the U.S. Office of Education, captured that urgency in a single sentence 75 years ago when he wrote: "In the hands of the Negro teachers rests the destiny of the race."

Every day, African-American teachers are doing extraordinary work in helping to close the achievement gap. Yet we also know that children of color have too few teachers of color. Nationwide, more than 35 percent of public school students are black or Hispanic, but less than 15 percent of our teachers are black or Latino. It is especially troubling that less than two percent of our nation's 3.2 million teachers are African-American males. On average, roughly 200,000 new teachers are hired a year in America—and just 4,500 of them are black males. It is not good for any of our country's children that only one in 50 teachers is a black man.

When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I visited too many elementary schools that did not have a single black male teacher, though most of the students were black and grew up in single-parent families. How can that be a good thing for young children, especially boys? The under-representation of African-American men in the teaching profession is a serious problem. And it is not self-correcting. Our children need you. Your schools of education can, and must, help us solve this national crisis.

Now, it is no secret that I have been critical of the quality of some teacher preparation programs. In a speech I gave last fall at the Teachers College at Columbia University, I urged every teacher education program to make better outcomes for students in the classroom "the overarching mission that propels all their efforts." I pointed out that only one state in the nation, Louisiana, was tracking and comparing the impact of new teachers from different teacher preparation programs on student achievement over a period of years. Louisiana is using that information to identify effective and ineffective programs for the first time—and teacher education programs are using the student outcome data to revamp and strengthen their programs. This continuous feedback helps children learn more, empowers future teachers with the skills they need, and ultimately benefits the entire state's educational system.

For example, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette used the data about graduates' impact on student achievement to increase admission requirements, added a career counseling program to better prepare teachers for the transition to the classroom, and boosted coursework requirements in English language arts. Such real-time feedback is invaluable.

I'm pleased to see that the Carolina Institute for Public Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill completed a study in January of the impact of UNC teacher preparation programs on student learning in North Carolina's public schools. The Carolina Institute's study of achievement assessed the impact of teachers from different UNC institutions on student achievement in a range of subjects in more than 143,000 classrooms—after controlling for differences in where, and whom, the teachers teach.

The researchers found that, overall, UNC-prepared teachers were neither better nor worse than teachers prepared in private colleges or alternative certification routes—which they candidly said was "not a sufficiently high standard for UNC programs."

The Carolina Institute study also found that students of teachers trained at several public HBCUs did worse on math and science assessments in high school and middle school math than teachers in comparable classrooms from other institutions. Yet students of teachers trained at those same institutions did as well or better as their counterparts on assessments of elementary school reading, math, and middle school reading.

I am glad to see my friend Erskine Bowles is here today. He is an outstanding leader, and I commend the UNC system for taking on this rigorous self-scrutiny. With his vision and courage, I'm convinced teacher preparation programs in this state will go to an entirely different level—North Carolina can lead this movement nationally. Just as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette has discovered, this kind of data is not to be feared but used. It helps point the way to strengthen programs and link them back to better student learning. It provides fertile ground for sharing of best practices.

The second challenge I would like to see HBCUs take on is the one I began my remarks with: Boosting graduation rates. HBCU graduation rates are significantly lower than those at non-HBCU two-year and four-year institutions. We know this is the case chiefly because HBCUs work with disproportionate numbers of students who need remedial coursework, have significant financial hurdles to overcome, or are the first members in their family to attend college. Individually, and collectively, these are huge challenges.

Yet we also know that institutions matter. Despite obstacles, some HBCUs do a great job of working with at-risk students to help them graduate. Others still have a lot of work to do. Some HBCUs do an excellent job of helping graduates find good jobs; others do not.

In light of the demands of the global economy and the President's goal for 2020, it is time for every institution of higher education to take stock of where it stands. Every institution should have measurable goals for increased college completion—and create a plan to achieve those goals.

I was so pleased to hear that Walter Kimbrough, the president of Philander Smith College, was here today. He has had a laser-like focus on improving retention and graduation rates since arriving on campus in 2004, especially among African-American males. As a result, the retention rate of first-year students has gone from about 50 percent to 71 percent. The graduation rate has increased from 16 to 24 percent—a 50 percent jump.

Those numbers still aren't close to where he wants them to be—but they are absolutely moving in the right direction, and doing so quickly. President Kimbrough told the Chronicle of Higher Education recently that HBCUs cannot "just be satisfied with lower graduation rates. We need to hold ourselves accountable." To quote Smokey Robinson, I second that emotion.

While every institution should be setting measurable goals to boost college completion, collaboration and the sharing of best practices of the sort advanced here in North Carolina is also essential.You may recall that the 1998 Higher Education Act reauthorization required institutions with high student loan default rates to lower their default rates or lose their eligibility for federal student aid. Fourteen HBCUs were at risk of losing eligibility—which would have had a devastating impact on graduation and retention rates. By 2002, 12 of those schools had successfully lowered their default rates.

Now, half of those 14 HBCUs were located in Texas. And the Texas HBCUs formed a consortium that successfully lowered default rates faster and more dramatically than HBCUs not in the consortium. Teamwork helped.

A recent Education Sector study of the Texas HBCU consortium's collaboration found that consortia schools collectively boosted default aversion management. They worked to develop personal connections with student borrowers. They partnered with outside entities that had expertise in skip tracing. They instituted financial literacy courses and financial aid awareness fairs for students. Simply put their work was comprehensive. Even after controlling for student characteristics, the Education Sector study found that "an institution's ability to retain and eventually graduate its students emerged as an important factor in determining that institution's …default rate."

So, yes, this is hard work. But I have tremendous confidence that HBCU's can elevate graduation rates. HBCUs have overcome greater challenges in the past—whether it was lowering default rates, improving pass rates on the National Teachers Examination, or surviving on a shoestring budget.

I learned long ago an important truth in my mother's afterschool program on the South Side of Chicago: A high-quality tutoring program can be a good thing, but a high-quality tutoring program run by caring adults is a great thing. It can literally help transform lives.

Despite the challenges they faced growing up in a violent neighborhood, her students just wanted a chance to succeed. To see the extraordinary potential that every child has, no matter where they come from—that is what I learned from my mother's work as a child—and that is what continues to drive me today. We cannot let any student fall through the cracks, regardless of the obstacles they face to becoming successful.

My mother's program got by on shoestring budgets too. But it is HBCUs that have pioneered the way in how to do more with less. I am confident that you will continue to thrive and transform lives—not just your students' lives, but their families' opportunities for generations to come.

I salute your collaboration here today. And I thank you for your tireless commitment and leadership to make the American dream of equal opportunity a reality. Children only get one chance at an education. The need for reform today is urgent. And as Martin Luther King put it many years ago, we cannot wait.