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Founders Library, Howard University, Washington, DC, April 9, 2006. (David Monack via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

There were many things that made me want to holler during my graduate school days two decades ago. One of them was constantly hearing that there were no students or faculty of color to be found because no one Black or Brown was qualified, or “in the pipeline,” or interested in this field or that field. I’d hear this at meetings on Pitt’s campus, at meetings on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, at conferences like the American Education Research Association’s annual meeting, at other academic conferences and settings.

Thank goodness those days are over. Now most of us realize there’s a few folks Black and Latino to find in almost every career option. But a new excuse for lack of diversity in higher education and on the job front has come up in meetings, at conferences, and in conversations, at least in terms of solutions. In job interviews, at local meetings regarding Montgomery County Public Schools, at Center for American Progress conferences on K-12 reform, at my previous jobs with the Academy for Educational Development and in other settings. The way to solve the diversity problem seems to come down to one prescriptive. “We need to reach out to HBCUs.”

So, it all comes down to the 110 or so Historically Black Colleges and Universities to solve the lack of diversity problem facing K-12 education, higher education, STEM careers, social justice nonprofits, public service, civic education, journalism, international development and foreign service, among other sectors? Really? Statistics over the past twenty years have shown that about twenty percent of all African American undergraduate students attend HBCUs. Statistics also show that about eleven percent of all Blacks who complete a four-year degree do so at a HBCU. According to the latest data from the US Department of Education (in conjunction with the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities), nearly 30,000 Blacks graduated with either a two-year or four-year degree from an HBCU in 2011.

The interesting thing about this initiative is that it has existed in some form or another since President Jimmy Carter signed the original executive order creating it in 1980, with every president contributing to it or strengthening it since then. This White House initiative has always been about helping HBCUs build their capacities for admitting, enrolling and graduating more African American students. Yet there’s a huge snag around the capacity of HBCUs to meet the goal to bring the number of undergraduate degrees produced on par with the overall 2020 goal of making the US the number one producer of college graduates again. It would mean that HBCUs would be responsible for graduating 166,713 students a year by 2020.

Besides the reality that this is a near-impossible goal for most HBCUs– most lack the resources necessary

Old New York City Subway token, phased out (like notion of token Black ought to be), May 30, 2005. (Jessamyn West via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

to admit and enroll so many students — there’s a couple of trends being ignored by the worlds of work and academia. HBCUs aren’t some untapped resource that folks at predominantly White institutions and in various fields suddenly discovered in the late-1990s and the ’00s. HBCU graduates have been working in all of these fields that have lacked diversity in terms of demographics and ideas for years.

With only eleven percent of all Black graduates, few, if any, fields will benefit from the one-shot solution they hope HBCUs will provide. Unless the goal of a school district, a social justice organization or a business is only to hire one, a ’70s-era goal in the 2010s that’s hardly worth a sentence of my time.

The other trend is the overall trend of the kinds of higher institutions African Americans attend. About half of all Black undergraduates — traditional students, adult learners and first-generation students — enroll at two-year schools, community colleges and for-profit institutions (the last a black hole if one’s expecting students to actually graduate). Which means that about thirty percent of all African American students — about 600,000 in all — attend predominantly White four-year institutions.

It’s not as if folks in leading positions propose that to increase the number of Latinos in certain fields, the answer would somehow lie in the couple of dozen Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), right? Or that to bring more women into the STEM fields, that a singular strategy would involve outreach to Sarah Lawrence, Spelman, Bryn Mawr, and Vassar? At least one would hope not.

It seems that a multi-pronged approach to addressing diversity issues for a school district, a technical field, the nonprofit sector or academia needs to be in order. One that starts much earlier, like in elementary school. One that doesn’t treat Black students at predominantly White institutions as a foregone conclusion, and HBCUs as a panacea.

But somehow, I’ll find myself at another meeting in the near future, hearing from some leader or official about their efforts to address diversity by contacting HBCUs as their one and only solution. A conversation that I find myself dreading more and more.