MEMPHIS, Tenn. - They're no longer the only option for African-American students, but the country's historically black colleges and universities brag that they provide a supportive environment where these students are more likely to succeed.
That, though, is not necessarily true.
An Associated Press analysis of government data on the 83 federally designated four-year HBCUs shows just 37 percent of their black students finish a degree within six years. That's 4 percentage points lower than the national college graduation rate for black students.
One major reason: the struggles of black men. Just 29 percent of HBCU males complete a bachelor's degree within six years, the AP found.
A few HBCUs, like Howard and all-female Spelman, have much higher graduation rates, exceeding the national averages for both black and white students. But others are clustered among the worst-performing colleges in the country. At 38 HBCUs, fewer than one in four men who started in 2001 had completed a bachelor's degree by 2007, the data show. At Texas Southern, Voorhees, Edward Waters and Miles College, the figure was under 10 percent.
To be sure, women are outperforming men across education, and many non-HBCUs struggle with low graduation rates. And the rates don't account for students who transfer or take more than six years, which may be more common at HBCUs than at other schools.
Most importantly, HBCUs educate a hugely disproportionate share of low-income students. Compared to other colleges defined by the government as "low-income serving," HBCU graduation rates are just a few points lower. Factoring in obstacles like lower levels of academic preparation, some research suggests that HBCUs do as well with black students as do majority-white institutions.
Still, HBCUs' low completion rates, especially for men, have broad consequences, on and off campus. Women account for more than 61 percent of HBCU students, the AP found. They have unprecedented leadership opportunities, but also pay a price — in everything from one-sided classroom discussions to competition for dates.
HBCUs educate only one-quarter of black college students, but produce an outsized number of future black graduate students and leaders. That group is distinctly female; HBCUs award twice as many degrees to women as to men.
The good news is some HBCUs are working hard to boost graduation rates — and succeeding. Experts say that proves failure isn't inevitable — but also means it's fair to ask tough questions of schools that are not improving.
HBCUs receive more than half their revenue from government. There is growing frustration with the waste of money — for students and taxpayers — when students have nothing to show for their time in college. President Barack Obama wants to return the United States to the top rank of college attainment by 2020. That will never happen if the colleges that do the heavy lifting of educating disadvantaged groups don't perform better.
Even some within the tight-knit HBCU community say the schools bear some responsibility. They say too many HBCUs have grown content offering students a chance at college, but resisting the hard work to get them through.
"I think HBCUs have gotten lazy," said Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. "That was our hallmark 40, 50 years ago. We still say 'nurturing, caring, the president knows you.' That's a lie on a lot of campuses. That's a flat-out lie."
'Big Man on Campus'
Glancing around her classes at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis and in the stands at basketball games, sophomore Velma Maclin has noticed something odd. Most of the so-called "Big Men on Campus" are women.
"The ladies pretty much run the yard," said Maclin. Several male friends recently got discouraged and dropped out. She has little sympathy. She works the overnight shift at FedEx Corp. and says if she can stay in school, they can, too.
Women have probably outnumbered men at HBCUs for most of their history, but the proportion has been gradually rising, the AP found — from 53 percent in 1976 to about 61 percent the last few years.
On 17 HBCU campuses there are two women for every man. At a few, the ratio is three-to-one.
"I don't think any of us have put our finger on exactly why this seems to be exacerbating," said Norman Francis, the longtime president of Xavier.
It sounds like easy living for men at HBCUs, and some joke about the advantages.
"You have so many beautiful women around you (that) you get to see and so many to pick from. The net is real wide," laughed Eric Jefferson, a senior at North Carolina Central University in Durham, which is two-thirds women.
But while HBCU women are doing relatively well, many note the lack of gender diversity in their classes. The gender gap also weighs heavily on social life.
For many HBCU women, said Monet Phillips, an N.C. Central senior, the feeling is: "Even though that I'm the Monday woman, I'm going to be the best Monday woman so that when he's with the Tuesday woman or the Wednesday woman then he'll be thinking of me."
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