Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) is a small, public college in North Carolina.
It is also a historically black college.
Recently, the mission of the state’s University of NC system, of which ECSU became a part in 1972, has bumped up against the historic mission that most HBCUs share. Apparently, seven degree programs at ECSU are on the chopping block: history, political science, physics, geology, studio art, marine environmental science, and industrial technology. The programs have been designated as “low productive“.
There is no final decision yet on the cuts but the logic should be noted. Many argue that the cuts would have a minimal impact because students can take those courses at other NC system universities.
And here’s where we get to the rub of the historic mission of HBCUs and the contemporary reality of how inequality works.
Can students who fit ECSU’s typical student profile attend, say, the University of North Carolina, if they want to major in physics or history? Theoretically, sure. Practically, not so fast.
Theoretically, students compare their interests against the course offerings from among a range of institutions that offer it. They do a little juggling with price and proximity to home or some other such equation and then they choose a college.
Practically, where a student can go to college is determined by a set of social processes that kicked in long before s/he ever requested he/r first college application. Far and away, for most students, where they go to college isn’t about what college they wanted to attend but what college they could attend.
Let’s take for example the basic admissions requirements at two universities in the same state university system. I will focus on math requirements. One, math is path dependent. That means you generally have to take algebra one before you can take calculus. Missing one step can set the trajectory of your course-taking for years of schooling. Two, STEM jobs will save us or something so yay maths.
The UNC admissions page says applicants must have:
Four units of college preparatory mathematics (two algebra, one geometry, and a higher-level mathematics course for which algebra II is a prerequisite)
The ECSU admissions page says:
4 units Mathematics (Algebra I, II, Geometry, and an advanced math)
Roughly comparable…until this addendum on UNC’s website, which doesn’t appear on ECSUs:
Because admission to the University is competitive, candidates should normally enroll in courses beyond these minimum requirements.
What constitutes “courses beyond these minimum requirements”?
The language varies by state and district but they include things like Advanced Placement Courses, International Baccalaureate courses, Honors Courses and “Academically and Intellectually Gifted” course designations. To meet the minimum requirements for high school graduation and minimum admissions requirements to the state’s publicly-funded flagship campus it is strongly suggested that a student have taken one, if not more, of these kinds of courses.
Who takes these courses? The College Board has long known that AP course taking skews white and wealthy:
In 2011, just three in 10 Black/African-American and Hispanic/Latino students and two in 10 American Indian/Alaska Native students participated in AP math courses.
A program assessment prepared specifically for the state of North Carolina gives us an idea of who isn’t likely to be enrolled in its Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) programs:
It’s pretty typical across other “enrichment”, i.e. AP/AB/Honors, courses:
Non-white students in the state are under-represented in the courses strongly suggested for college admissions by UNC. Why don’t more black students just take the AP/IB/Honors/AIG courses they need to be competitive?
First, it helps if your school offers enrichment courses. You may be surprised to discover this, but apparently poor middle and high schools offer significantly fewer enrichment courses. Second, if that blows your mind wait for this: a disproportionate number of black and hispanic students attend poorer middle and high schools.
Yet, even when a school offers enrichment courses black students are under-represented in them. How could that be? In some programs students have to be identified by a teacher or school authority as gifted. That can be done by a standardized test or advocating on a student’s behalf. For a host of reasons this is less likely to happen for black children than it is for white children. Standardized tests have persistent racial differences that are not always correlated with actual school performance or mastery of material. Advocacy also tends to be racialized and gendered. There is a whole body of literature about how even the most well-meaning teachers cannot and do not cross the cultural chasm necessary to identify talent or ability in children who do not look like them.
Of course, a student’s parent(s) could advocate on her behalf. And many do, across race and class. But there are significant barriers to participating in school bureaucracy. And the effects of race and class on parental involvement become conflated the further down the socioeconomic hierarchy you go. Poor parents have trouble getting time off work to attend meetings during office hours, for example. And forgive me if this is pedantic, but to be clear, black people are disproportionately working in low wage jobs where this kind of work arrangement with taking time off is common. And, even when they can physically participate in school, the middle class language and norms significantly blunts their advocacy. Even well-educated parents struggle with the psychometric, technocratic acronym soup that peppers school parent-teacher events in the accountability era. Imagine if you were also less educated than the school authorities.
None of this is new, of course. There are race, class, and gender inequalities in access to school resources that reverberate throughout a student’s entire life. It’s why if you have the choice between being born rich or smart, choose rich every time if you want to end up rich at the end of life.
Historically black colleges understood this. They were founded for this very reason. It’s right there in ECSU’s mission at the time of its founding in 1891. ECSU was founded for the, “teaching and training teachers of the colored race to teach in the common schools of North Carolina.”
The mission was specific because the conditions of the university’s founding were specific. The children of enslaved people were legally and culturally barred from formal schooling. Provisions to create schools for blacks faced a shortage of teachers both willing and trained to teach them. The mission was explicitly about racial conditions.
Despite the seemingly rational logic behind the cuts, in reality the students that ECSU serves cannot just go to UNC if they want a degree in history or physics. The racial conditions may be less overt than they were when ECSU was founded, but the effects of unequal school funding, school tracking, and discrimination means black students are still unlikely to meet the strong “suggestion” that they take more rigorous coursework. It can be argued that the intent of admissions policies are different, more progressive than legal segregation. But, intent likely matters little to you if you’re the capable kid who loves science but went to a school that didn’t offer AP Calculus and there wasn’t crap you could do about it. The net effect is the same.
Today, many of us treasure the historical missions of HBCUs. We value its historical culture. But, it is worth noting that the mission of ECSU, like most HBCUs, has changed throughout the years. When ECSU became a part of the UNC state university system, it’s course and program offerings were no longer unilaterally weighed against the needs of black students but against the needs of the UNC system.
And that is where we find ourselves with ECSU’s proposed cuts. Their programs are low-performing relative to those in the UNC system, not relative to the shortage of black scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Surely, if it was the latter, the focus would not be on eliminating low performing degree programs in disciplines directly related to these occupational shortages, but investing in making them high performing.
It is a position in which many HBCUs find themselves. The dire conditions of declining funding and anti-intellectual political rhetoric that traditional highered decries these days? It came first for HBCUs.
You are being asked to make a dollar out of 15 cents? HBCUs were founded on the principle of big missions, small funding.
Your political clout among decision-makers is declining, jeopardizing your institution’s prestige? HBCUs have been locked out of the political levers that decide their year-to-year survival since they were brought into the highered fold.
How does the saying go? First they came for black colleges and I did not speak…
But that is about judgement and I am generally not interested in judgement statements. I am interested in the survival of institutions that serve persons and groups that are often underserved. For all their challenges, HBCUs serve students who forgot to choose to be born rich instead of smart.
Assuming that those students can go anywhere their smarts and AP/IB/AIG courses can take them is a lie.
Cutting degree programs at ECSU may make sense for the UNC system, but it makes anything but for the students who rely on them for higher education choices where, increasingly, there are none for certain kinds of people.