Why a Black University Today?

A forbearer of today’s Huston-Tillotson University began educating freed slaves and their sons and daughters on Bluebonnet Hill in East Austin. Now in our 139th year, we are alive and well.

With God’s blessing, we will continue that mission for many years to come, with greater effectiveness, innovation and service to rapidly changing community needs.

Yet, we suddenly find our work threatened. First, 70 percent of our students receive federal aid, and now Congress is scrutinizing Pell Grants and other federal programs that benefit Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This comes after “sequestration” of funds by Congress in 2012 put the squeeze on HBCUs. Huston-Tillotson is one of 105 HBCUs in our nation.

House Republicans have also declined to take up the president’s budget, which includes $228 million for HBCUs.

We are even hearing doubts from traditional supporters about whether a need remains for black colleges. “With major state universities and elite colleges aggressively pursuing minorities,” they ask, “what is the argument for a historically black institution?”

A new challenge comes from President Barack Obama, who has proposed a college rating system that by 2018 would dispense money based on a set of metrics measuring outcomes.

Believe me, at HT we are determined to become more effective. I have no goals higher than increasing our six-year graduation rate, which is unacceptably low at 25 percent; increasing retention; restraining debt that becomes such a burden to our students and their parents; and strengthening our courses in science, technology, engineering and math to further prepare our students for the workplace.

But context is important in the application of metrics. We do not target the top 10 percent of students. We open our arms and accept 90 percent of students who arrive with a high school diploma, and, therefore, our graduation rates will be lower and are hard to compare with those of elite universities.

Our endowment is a modest $10 million, a sliver of the $18.2 billion endowment of the University of Texas System as of February 2013.

Perhaps our modest financial predicament can be laid at our own doorstep. In the past we have not reached out as aggressively as we should to reach corporate and personal philanthropy in the Austin community, where more than 2,000 of our graduates live, work, pay taxes and raise their children.

But for those who suggest HBCUs are mere artifacts of a distant and racist past, a past now purified by law and good intentions, let me firmly disagree. The need for HBCUs has never been greater than it is today.

Yes, the leaders of major universities have done extraordinary work in making a place for high-achieving minority students. Yet, we know that access to these public institutions is increasingly at risk because of a U.S. Supreme Court that looks skeptically at affirmative action, and hints that its end will come.

We — Huston-Tillotson and our sister HBCUs — are a different force in our society.

At Huston-Tillotson, the minority student is at the center of the educational experience; he or she is not a student assigned to a special category, no matter how importantly that category is regarded and cultivated.

Majority institutions can be extraordinary opportunities for the top 10 percent of minority high school graduates, but they can be rugged places for minorities who work hard but are often first-generation college students coming from families where there is little home technology or other opportunities of affluence. Those students can feel isolated among more privileged students.

At Huston-Tillotson, we know we must change and adapt. We are not looking for a free ride from the taxpayer. We have opened our doors to all young people, and our student population now is 17 percent Hispanic. The black majority is at 77 percent, with the balance being white or of mixed race or foreign nationality.

We live in a time when a high school diploma no longer guarantees a job. Not even a bachelor’s degree assures employment. The jobless rate for blacks remains twice that of whites in an economy that struggles with job creation.

Now is not the time to weaken support for HBCUs, which could mean closing a key door of opportunity in our great American democracy. Now is the time to cast open these doors wider. That, I submit, is a challenge for all citizens who believe in protecting economic and social mobility in our nation.

Dr. Larry L. Earvin is the fifth president of Huston-Tillotson University.

**Article originally published in the Jan. 31 edition of the Austin American-Statesman.**