Comment

Martinez: Consolidate UNC campuses, but give savings to HBCUs

March 26, 2013 

Low-performing entities are always targeted for consolidation during any reorganization. That makes the state’s historically black public colleges and universities (HBCUs) particularly vulnerable in this latest drive for efficiency from the University of North Carolina System.

For good reason. In my book, the best measure of an institution’s worth is its graduation rate, and the numbers out of the state’s HBCUs aren’t good. Not only is this a poor return on the state’s investment, it’s also a big-time problem for the students. Prospective employers are interested only in degrees earned, not classes taken.

Let’s allow for financial and personal pressures during college and look at the system’s six-year graduation rate rather than the traditional four-year rate. As expected, UNC-Chapel Hill sits atop the system with a phenomenal 89.2 percent six-year graduation rate. N.C. State is second at 71.2 percent. Western Carolina has the lowest rate among historically white schools at 47.7.

Lagging well behind system peers are the HBCUs and UNC-Pembroke, whose study body is majority African-American and American Indian. According to UNC System data for 2011-12, Elizabeth City University’s six-year graduation rate was 42.7. North Carolina A&T and N.C. Central came in at 42.4. Winston-Salem State sat at 40.5, Fayetteville State at 34.4 and Pembroke at 34.2.

These poor outcomes aren’t surprising given that HBCUs also admit students with the lowest SAT scores. System data for fall 2012 show the SAT average for the incoming freshman class at four of the HBCUs ranged from 850 to 900. Winston-Salem State’s freshman class had the highest SAT average at roughly 910. Pembroke was at 920. By comparison, UNC-Greensboro and Western Carolina, at roughly 1020, had the lowest SAT averages for the historically white universities. As expected, UNC-Chapel Hill’s freshman class had the highest average, at just shy of 1,300.

Taken together, it’s easy to see why any of these HBCUs could be a target for consolidation, though it would surely elicit howls about historic preservation from alumni and civil rights advocates. Those looking for efficiency would counter with the inevitable questions about the relevance of HBCUs in the 21st century.

Such a debate would be pointless. HBCUs are operating because the market demands it.

Of the 46,723 African-American students enrolled in the 16-campus system, 55 percent have chosen to attend the five HBCUs. Given this support, the debate should turn to the more significant question of how legislators and chancellors can strengthen the HBCUs. The obvious response for some will be to call for more money, but that’s not going to happen to any significant degree for the foreseeable future.

Unless we do something different.

HBCU chancellors and African-American community leaders should consider proposing a consolidation plan themselves. The Republican-led General Assembly likely would be friendly to the idea of creating two or three strong, well-funded HBCUs rather than trying to sustain five weaker, regionally balanced institutions.

Here’s the rub. We would have to think about North Carolina’s public HBCUs (and possibly Pembroke) as a united, separate entity, not just as part of the overall UNC System. But changing the approach would be worth it.

If the General Assembly axes an HBCU or two in the name of cost-cutting, those savings will accrue to the system, not specifically to the remaining HBCUs. Given the historic underfunding that HBCUs have endured and their current academic challenges, chancellors no doubt could easily prove that funding equal to historically white schools isn’t really equal at all.

Republicans like results. HBCU chancellors should play to that trait, using consolidation of campuses as a tool for strengthening those that remain. Do some negotiating. Commit to increasing admission standards, curriculum rigor and graduation rates. But do so in exchange for additional funding that becomes available from consolidation.

To be sure, this would be a bold move. But if the chancellors of the HBCUs fail to take advantage of this opportunity, their institutions are destined to remain exactly where they are in the UNC System – at the bottom.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com

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