Op-ed: HBCUs Should Join Forces
By Tony Allen
In 2018 my historically Black institution, Delaware State University, began providing all incoming students with an iPad or MacBook. When Covid struck in 2020, our digital-learning collaboration with Apple allowed our faculty to transition more than 1,440 course sections from traditional classrooms to digital platforms in only five days.
Our free-device program hinges on negotiating bulk prices. Between college students, early-college high-school students, faculty members, and staff members, we manage 7,500 tablets and laptops, and add another 1,800 annually. That dependable reorder qualifies us for substantial discounts.
Yet the day we received our first 1,400 devices in 2018, a nearby Maryland school district received 30,000. Our discount pales in comparison to theirs.
That made me wonder: What would happen to our price break if, instead of ordering for a university of 5,600 students, we were ordering for a nationwide community of 325,000 students? And what other benefits would we see from being part of a large system?
Collectively, the nation’s 101 public and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities are the largest producers of college graduates of color in America, graduating 40 percent of all Black engineers, 40 percent of all Black U.S. Congress members, 50 percent of all Black lawyers, and 80 percent of all Black judges. We are unparalleled as a low-cost provider of quality education.
Our impact, however, is diluted because we function as a sector rather than a system. HBCUs share a common mission but have yet to organize a cohesive nationwide consortium of talent, expertise, research, and innovation to bargain on the footing of what would effectively be one of the 10 largest university systems in the U.S.
In 2016 the federal government estimated that the direct national economic impact of HBCUs was $14.8 billion, more than double what it was a decade earlier. Yet each time that I consider proposals from vendors and collaborative partners, I’m forced to balance what my single institution can afford versus the package we need. Despite becoming the first HBCU to acquire another college and despite increasing enrollment by more than 40 percent in the past decade, Delaware State remains a small- to mid-sized public university working diligently to leverage resources to make the next leap. Our 100 sister institutions face the same dilemma.
We all struggle with the reality that of the $42 billion in federal research-and-development funds awarded in fiscal 2018, less than 1 percent went to HBCUs. We all face retention challenges and a time-honored imperative to seek innovative ways to redress systemic under-resourcing. The time to change is now.
Some are skeptical that enough HBCUs can come together to become a single “system,” attracting big, innovative solutions in a way that a single college or small consortium could never manage. But there is evidence on a smaller scale that it can happen. For example, dozens of HBCUs nationwide forgave tens of millions of dollars in student debt, including South Carolina State University erasing $9.8 million, clearing account balances for more than 2,500 students; the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore joined four other land-grant HBCUs in a collaboration with Princeton University to expand research and innovation; IBM will create cybersecurity leadership centers at six HBCUs, including North Carolina A&T State, Clark Atlanta, and Morgan State Universities.
These are great examples of what collective efforts can look like, but even they aren’t enough. I’m challenging both the private sector and the HBCU community to collaborate on a far broader scale. That might involve a large-sized — at least $100-million — social or technical research effort, such as one to improve health outcomes in low-resource communities of color. It could focus on at least 10 different HBCUs across the nation, with mentoring and guidance provided by a dedicated research university and financial support provided by corporate and nonprofit partners. Public HBCUs would not leave existing state university systems but could develop a formal, collaborative association to leverage our combined impact to finance critical needs.
If all 101 HBCUs acted together, as do the 19 land-grant HBCUs in the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities — appearing before Congress each year with a single, united voice — they would be capable of achieving great things: shared programs and a unified voice speaking for a student community of 325,000; technology and physical enhancements to match the best cutting-edge learning environments in higher education; expanded research capacity across a variety of interdisciplinary programs, both public and private; a college education even more affordable for low-income families; and shared opportunities for smaller institutions that serve a broader population of students.
HBCUs are critically relevant to America’s long-term success because our research is consequential, our economic impact is significant, and our graduates are agents of change on a global scale. We have always been a community. Now we need to think of ourselves as a system.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2022, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/hbcus-should-join-forces (Subscription required)