By Christopher Matgouranis
Over at the New York Times’s Economix Blog, an interesting piece ran yesterday discussing Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the benefits (or lack thereof) of attending such an institution. According to the post, there is a growing amount of evidence suggesting that all else equal, attending an HBCU, instead of a traditional (white) college, adversely impacts a black student's future financial success. Citing data mostly from a paper by MIT’s Michael Greenstone and Harvard’s Roland Fryer, himself an African-American, the piece indicates that this was not the case in the past (circa early 1970s and prior), but rather that the wage premium began to decline in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Interestingly, the blog also mentions that evidence exists suggesting that traditional (white) colleges have become much more effective over time at educating African American students. Also, it should be noted that it did mention that in general, there are some non-economic benefits to attending an HBCU, such as enhanced socio-political engagement.
The post left out some interesting findings from the Greenstone/Fryer paper. There are vast disparities in institutional quality across the field of HBCUs. There are many of acknowledged poor quality, for example Paul Quinn College (four year graduation rate of 3%) or Central State University (20.8% student loan default rate), but there are those that are widely considered “better” (e.g. Howard, Spellman, Morehouse, Xavier). Greenstone and Fryer isolated these more prestigious HBCUs in this study and examined their labor market outcomes. Their findings: all else constant, even attending an elite HBCU has a negative impact on students’ future earnings. This effect has also become much stronger over time. Also an interesting finding, graduates of these elite HBCUs have experienced a decline, or in some cases a complete reversal, of the social/lifestyle benefits attributed to attending such a school.
The paper/blog post, along with others examine something important with regard to colleges in general: what are the outcomes? With HBCUs it seems that they are simply not delivering the goods, or as Greenstone/Fryer succinctly put it, are appearing to “retard black progress.” Setting aside arguments on whether racially cached institutions such as HBCUs should even exist in this age, one needs to consider whether it is prudent to fund (often federally in the case of HBCUs) and support institutions of inferior educational quality. To be sure, there are bigger problems in American higher education today than HBCUs (HBCUs make up only about 2% of total enrollment), but that shouldn’t give them a get out of jail free pass. If HBCUs are stifling African-American achievement, it may well be sensible public policy to rethink their continued public support. However, until we start to see more standardized and comprehensive measure of outcomes, both learning and financial, across all types of institutions, don’t hold your breath for much change on this front.