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All Races Attracted To HBCU Campuses


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we want to tell you about a new bill making its way through Congress that would allow employers to offer time off instead of overtime pay when employees work extra hours. Supporters say it's just giving people what they want: more flexibility and a more family-friendly workplace. So why do some critics say it could actually hurt employees? We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to talk about news from historically black colleges and universities, also called HBCUs. According to a new report called The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, many of the nation's top HBCUs showed a substantial increase in graduation rates in recent years.

We wanted to know more about this and other interesting information from the report, so we've called its author, Marybeth Gasman. She's a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, where she studies historically black schools. Welcome back, Professor Gasman. Thanks for joining us once again.

MARYBETH GASMAN: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: Also joining us for additional perspective is David Wilson, the president of Morgan State University. That's an historically black college in Baltimore. President Wilson, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID WILSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Professor Gasman, let's start with you, because, on this program, we've spoken with you. We've spoken with others about what's been perceived as a crisis time for HBCUs in recent years. But your study outlines some areas of growth that may surprise some people, and I want to start with this increase in the graduation rate. Why is that?

GASMAN: Well, I think that HBCUs, for several years now, have been focusing heavily on retention. The focus of foundations across the country on degree attainment has also had a positive impact on HBCUs in that their focus now is not only access, but it's also success. And that has played out in HBCUs doing better when it comes to their graduation rates, especially considering that they educate low-income students of color who oftentimes are underprepared.

MARTIN: You do mention in the report that a lot of the top HBCUs showed increasing graduation rates, but you still find that, on average, as a group, the schools are graduating 30 percent of students in six years, and that does not compare favorable to majority institutions. And tell me why that is.

GASMAN: If you look at the percentage of Pell Grant recipients, and if you look at the average SAT score and you look at the expenditures by the state for the institutions, as well as the percentage of students of color, you will see that the graduation rates are substantially different. And the issue is that HBCUs tend to enroll lower-income students, and income correlates with graduation.

And so, whereas a lot of majority institutions, they don't enroll a lot of Pell Grant eligible students, and they also don't enroll students who might have lower SAT scores. HBCUs do. So they are really doing the lion's share of the work when it comes to low-income students in general, and especially low-income students of color.

MARTIN: President Wilson, we note that Morgan State University's graduation rate is just under 40 percent. Now, you've been at Morgan State since July of 2010, but you've had a long career in higher education before that, working at both, you know, majority and minority institutions. So could you talk a little bit about this from your perspective? What have you seen?

WILSON: Certainly, since I have been at Morgan, we have seen an uptick in our graduation rate here. We've seen a significant uptick in our retention rate. We basically instituted here at Morgan - and some of the other HBCUs across the country, as well - something that we call intrusive intervention. It means that, you know, we really begin to track our students' progress from the moment they set foot on the campus. and if they have a quiz or if they have a test in one of their courses and they don't do well, we have counselors who actually will flag them, if you will, and basically make sure that they are taking advantage of all the services that we offer as a university.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new report on America's historically black colleges and universities, the HBCUs. Our guests are the report's author, Professor Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania. Also with us, David Wilson, president of Morgan State University.

Professor Gasman, one of the other interesting findings in your report, you talked about people of color. You really meant it, that the number - the percentage of students who are not African-American are attending these schools at much higher rates. For example, since 1980, Hispanic and Latino enrollment at HBCUs has jumped 123 percent. Asian enrollment has increased by 60 percent. White enrollment has remained a steady 13 percent for the past 20 years, which is kind of interesting. Why is it that other students of color are increasingly attracted to these institutions?

GASMAN: People have been aware of the white presence, but the Latino and Asian presence is a little bit new, and I think there are a couple of reasons. One, especially for Latinos - and my research team has done some work interviewing some Latino students, and they say that it's a very nurturing environment. It's a family-like environment, and they feel empowered. And they actually feel loved at the institutions. And so you're seeing that. Especially in the state of Texas, you're seeing large increases, but across the areas where there are large populations of Latinos, but even in North Carolina.

And then, among Asian students, you're seeing that a lot of their reasons have to do with the low tuition and the accessibility. They tend to be gravitating toward the public HBCUs.

Overall, non-blacks tend to go to HBCUs because of location, because of curricular programs and because of low tuition. And then the fourth reason really is that they - unlike the experiences that many racial and ethnic minorities have at majority institutions, quite often - black colleges, those in the minority, non-blacks, tend to have very positive experiences, and they tend to tell their friends about these good experiences.

MARTIN: Interesting. Professor Wilson, tell me about that. Has that been your experience at Morgan?

WILSON: Actually, about 16 percent of our students here at Morgan are non-black, and certain programs actually attract a high percentage of white students. And one program in particular is our landscape architecture program here, for example, where 84 percent of the students in that program are white, and overall, you know, 20 percent of the students in our School of Architecture are white. And what I would say to that is that, within the state of Maryland, there are only two schools of architecture at public institutions in the state, here in Morgan and at University of Maryland at College Park.

And I think when you have high-quality programs on our campuses that are non-duplicative, that white students and other students will find those programs, and they will enroll in them. And that's where we see...

MARTIN: And why does that matter? Why does that matter?

WILSON: I think because, of course, you know, the demographics are shifting nationally and internationally, and it's important for all of our students, I think, to be in an environment where they are interacting on a daily basis with students who are different than they are. And that will be the case whether it's Morgan or Morehouse or Harvard or Stanford.

MARTIN: Speaking of globally competent, Professor Gasman, you note that study abroad and foreign language programs are actually growing at HBCUs. Your report says that creating global citizens should be a prime objective for HBCUs. Why do you say that?

GASMAN: Because if it's not a prime objective, HBCU students are going to be left behind. If more HBCUs would offer critical languages and more study abroad opportunities, they would make their students much more competitive on a global level, and that would put African-Americans way out in front in terms of their opportunities with companies, in terms of their opportunities with the federal government, in terms of their opportunities abroad. It's a great area where African-Americans can excel and HBCUs can play an enormous role there.

MARTIN: President Wilson, I understand that this is something that you've actually advanced aggressively in your time at Morgan. Tell me - and this is your final thought - why do you think this matters?

WILSON: It matters because we do not live in silos anymore. We have taken the national lead with our historically black college White House initiative, for example, with Brazil. We have exchange programs with China, with Africa. And so we understand here at Morgan - as some of my other colleagues do across HBCUs - that our students must be prepared today, as Professor Gasman indicated, to be globally competitive and to understand other histories and other cultures, and we feel that our campuses are changing to reflect that.

MARTIN: A final thought from you, Professor Gasman. You know, we've spent a lot of time in recent years talking about the crises affecting HBCUs, the graduation rates. Some of the schools are just falling off the cliff financially, accreditation issues - a very different tone to this report. Just, overall, why do you think it is that you're seeing these areas of improvement at such a challenging time?

GASMAN: All too often, people talk about HBCUs, but they don't have any data to base their conversation on, and so that's one of the reasons why I wanted to do this. I wanted to do a broad look at what's going on at HBCUs and have data to back it up. And when you do that, you find that HBCUs are contributing in very important ways, and it's important to have data to show that that's taking place.

MARTIN: Marybeth Gasman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, where she studies historically black schools. She was with us from the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Also with us, David Wilson. He is the president of Morgan State University. He joined us from WEAA in Baltimore, which I might add joins the TELL ME MORE listening family today.

President Wilson, Professor Gasman, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GASMAN: Thank you.

WILSON: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.