On Sanders and HBCUs

When I spoke with the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign about recent political chatter about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) I had three points I hoped someone important might listen to:

  1. Private and public HBCUs are not in competition with each other. The rhetoric from Hillary Clinton and Clinton surrogates suggesting that free tuition at public HBCUs would kill private HBCUs is not empirically grounded. HBCUs have fairly distinct student markets. The closest recent analog to higher ed market segmentation is between HBCUs and for-profit colleges. Forthcoming work from Rhonda Sharpe shows little evidence that tuition drives black student enrollment between sectors of higher education. There is little reason to think that would be true if free tuition at publics were to happen. And, the rhetoric of HBCUs starving each other to death is destructive. It’s politically convenient but destructive. The single greatest threat to HBCUs, public and private, is persistent wealth and political inequalities that undermine institutional endowments, black students’ ability to pay, and public investment in black institutions.
  2. Wealth inequalities for black students are especially acute when it comes to the total cost of attending college (as opposed to just paying tuition). You can see work here from Sara Goldrick-Rab and Penn’s MSI research group. Black students have to borrow at higher rates to live while attending college as wealthier parents buy their undergraduates’ condos and subsidize their car payments and credit card bills. Public HBCUs tend to be located in geographies with greater economic diversity. This means more living options. Private HBCUs largely mimic small liberal arts colleges’ residential learning model in smaller geographical spaces with fewer living options (i.e. more expensive). Private HBCUs also have far smaller institutional endowments to grant aid to students that can offset the total cost of attendance. Private HBCUs and the students who attend them would benefit from direct aid to shore up institutional endowments and pay for total cost of attendance.
  3. As I have said a thousand times in a hundred different places, the best higher education program is a good jobs program. HBCUs are strong when the black opportunity structure in the labor market, the political system, and the cultural system are strong. Persistent labor market discrimination, criminal justice discrimination, political gerrymandering, corporation-as-people political systems, and technological racism efficiencies destroy the black mobility structure. The private sector has not and never will redress these inequalities. That is why the public sector is so vitally important to the health of the black body politic. A higher education policy that categorically shores up black institutions paired with public investment in jobs is the single best way forward for HBCUs.

I believe that Bernie Sanders’ campaign heard that feedback (from myself and colleagues like Darrick Hamilton and Sandy Darity). And, I believe that understanding is now reflected in Sanders’ HBCU proposals. It is the most robust, specific plan put forth by any presidential candidate this cycle (and the last two presidential cycles if you want to be trill, but you ain’t heard it from me).

Along with talking the talk about white privilege and unpacking their racist knapsacks in presidential debates, I hope that concrete discussions of concrete investments in black lives will come to matter this presidential cycle.


And, that’s my foray into presidential politics.

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