By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Kentucky State University and Howard recently stepped away from the beaten path and made a sharp right turn onto the road less traveled.
Kentucky State University in Frankfort recently shifted its focus from recruitment to retention. This means at a time when college is enrollment is down nationwide Kentucky State’s shift caused its retention rate to rise to 60.2 percent, the highest in 10 years.
Meanwhile Howard University may reverse its reported loss of $44 million in fiscal 2014, by auctioning off WHUR-TV. The opening bid at next year’s FCC auction for the nation’s first African American, campus TV station is set at $461 million; but it could drop.
Of the shift to the road less traveled, Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick said in a recent statement, “Howard University must consider the significant financial opportunity presented with the auction.”
This means as 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities are struggling to fill classrooms, to increase profits, and to cope with social and demographic changes, some are following the beaten path at a time when census projections show the U.S. population will become majority-minority in 2044. Blacks will comprise 12.7 percent of the population, compared to 49.7 percent for whites, 25 percent for Hispanics, 7.9 percent for Asians and 3.7 percent for multiracial persons.
But other struggling HBCUs are stepping off of the beaten path and making a sharp right turn onto new ground. In a sense, the changing consumer base mirrors the challenges that business owners of color encountered after the 1965 Civil Rights Act banned segregation.
Black businesses operated in “protected markets,” according to the 2008 Journal of Socio-Economics. Black consumers were rarely pursued by white-owned firms.
“Black life insurance companies are classic examples of firms that prospered due to the existence of a protected market created by segregation and discrimination,” the Journal of Socio-Economics noted. “Beginning in the 1880s, the major life insurance companies either refused to sell policies or sold policies on the basis of different actuarial tables that greatly increased the costs. This practice actually created an environment where Black life insurance companies (companies that were not able to solicit white clientele) were able to grow and flourish. Some viewed these protected markets as good for the community.”
“Black entrepreneurs were nurtured in part because most white owned firms did not pursue Black customers,” the Journal of Socio-Economics continued. “Moreover, white-owned firms that chose to compete in the Black community’s market were severely handicapped by their ignorance of ethnic-specific demands.”
And this is where Kentucky State’s and Howard’s efforts to reinvent themselves come in.
The point is Kentucky State was considered a pioneer or a pacesetter when it was founded in 1886 as the State Normal School for Colored Persons. It was after all the second state-supported institution of higher learning in Kentucky.
But times have changed since Kentucky State opened its doors in 1887 with three teachers, 55 students, and $1,500 from the city on a bluff overlooking Frankfort.
One hundred and twenty eight years later Kentucky State is operating in a drastically different world. Blacks comprise about half (53 percent) of its student body while 22 percent are white. Scroll through a news story on Kentucky State, and read the mean-spirited comments underneath many stories.
Meanwhile, its six-year graduation rate of 41 percent, about a decade ago, has now plummeted to 14 percent, which is far lower than any other public institution of higher learning, the next lowest being Northern Kentucky University at 37 percent.
Its six-year graduation rate is ranked No. 78 among 85 comparable HBCUs.
“We’re putting structure in place to deliver better organization, better student progress monitoring, better customer service, and overall effectiveness,” said Melinda Impellizzeri, special assistant to the president for strategic planning in a press release. “We are transforming to hold each other accountable for every role in our students’ success.”
In a sense, the same logic is driving the potential TV-station sale at Howard University. While it operates the nation’s first African-American–owned public television station which broadcasts to about two million television households in the metropolitan Washington region and reaches into Baltimore. And its signal overlaps with WETA, the PBS flagship and producing station headquartered in Arlington, Va., and Maryland Public Television in Owings Mills.
Its pending sale should raise a critical question at this juncture: Is it wise for an HBCU to rest on its laurels as a pioneer?
Kojo Nnamdi who worked at Howard’s TV station for 26 years before leaving in 2011 said, “The station has been, at points, really valuable to this community. At one point it was the only resource to see a reflection of African-American life on television. But in today’s media landscape, that’s no longer true.”
“Now people have a much wider variety of choices,” Nnamdi said.
Does the same logic apply to many struggling HBCUs that continue to cover the same old ground while the landscape is changing?
The answer seems to surface in many unflattering stories about HBCUs. For example, Rachel Williams told the Wall Street Journal how she dropped out of Kentucky State after piling up about $34,000 in federally backed loans. Roberts moved to Frankfort from her tough Chicago neighborhood in hopes of a career in law. But she said the college’s low graduation rate leaves many students with little to show for their investment.
“When I look back on it, I realize they were mostly interested in my money,” Roberts said in a Wall Street Journal interview on June 17.
To shift from the beaten path to new ground, Marybeth Gasman, an expert on HBCUs said, “The best way to keep critics quiet is to show significant gains in student success. HBCUs can be true to their historic mission of serving the underserved and also be shining examples of the best strategies for educating African-American students.”