As undergraduates at Stanford, it’s hard not to think about what our life might be like after graduation. Will we be successful? How will we define success? Recently, the National Urban League released a Gallup report that looks into success among college graduates in a deep, multi-faceted way. The data draws from the Gallup-Purdue index, which has surveyed nearly 60,000 college graduates regarding outcomes about employment and wellbeing. For statistical significance, the only racial categories analyzed were white, black, Asian, and Hispanic. However, despite results that show certain minority groups as less successful, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) show exciting insight into how we make universities more supportive for their students.
After breaking wellbeing down into five categories – purpose, social, financial, community, and physical – it becomes evident that in general, college graduates are not universally successful. Only 10% of all graduates were “thriving” in all five categories;less than half are thriving in financial, community, or physical well-being. Unfortunately, blacks and hispanics report less financial well-being than whites and asians. Out of all races and genders, black females appear to be the worst faring post-graduation, reporting levels of well-being under national, racial, and gendered averages for every category of well being except social, where asian males are the least likely to be thriving. Black and hispanic graduates have unemployment rates nearly twice that of asian and white graduates, and black females, once again, are least likely to be engaged at work.
Success in college, in the eyes of many, is determined by ability to complete the degree in 6 years, obtain employment, and repay student loans. However, these results point to different yardsticks: emotional support and experiential learning.
If individuals have at least one professor that cares about them as a person, at least one professor that excited them about learning, and a mentor that encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams, they are about twice as likely to be engaged in their work and more likely to do well in other aspects of their life. Among experiential learning – an internship/job that applied classroom learning, a project that took at least a semester to complete, or extreme involvement in extracurricular activities – variability of experience among races is far less. The national average for students that have experienced all three measures of experiential learning in 6%.
There seems to be an anomaly in the results; black graduates in general report greater levels of emotional support. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) could form much of an explanation. HBCUs, such as Howard University, University of Washington D.C., Tennessee State University, and Morehouse College, seem to be emotionally supporting their black graduates significantly more than non-HBCUs. Black graduates from HBCUs were nearly three times more likely to feel all three measures of support (35%) than black graduates from non-HBCUs (12%). Black graduates are twice as likely to access experiential learning, such as a project that lasts at least one semester, (13%) than non-HBCU black graduates (7%). The most significant discrepancy between HBCU and non-HBCU black graduates is in one measure of emotional support from the Gallup report: “My professors at my university cared about me as a person.”
While HBCUs outperform the nation on well-being, they do have their own legitimate issues with student outcomes. The 2011 national graduation rate was 55.5%. For HBCUs, it was around 30%. For African Americans across the board, it was just under 40%. HBCUs are often located in the south – where graduation rates are lower – and have a large proportion of first generation, low income, Pell grant-receiving students; these demographics structurally point towards a lower graduation rate. In a survey of 54 HBCUs, 50 HBCUs had a 2013 black graduate rate of under 50%. Graduation is an issue, but it is neither the only issue HBCUs face nor is it an issue that only HBCUs face. HBCUs are becoming less prominent in the black community; in 2011, 16% of all bachelor’s degrees earned by black students were awarded by an HBCU, cut in half from 1977. Despite HBCUs’ potential flaws, however, there seem to be clear indicators of success: the question is how such success comes about.
First, representation must be considered. While one might consider a majority-black student population important to student community, other colleges suggest that this factor has little effect on supportiveness. Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) are those where a large percentage of enrolled students identify as Hispanic; Gallup results show that this high Hispanic representation has no effect on emotional support and experiential learning. However, faculty racial composition is usually quite different. Across universities nationwide, over 80% of professors are white and 4% are black. However, at HBCUs, 57% of the tenured faculty are black. While the demographic composition of HBCU faculty may begin to reflect its student population more accurately – by contrast, Stanford undergraduates are 7.5% black yet their faculty is 2% black – there are still discrepancies in race, and in gender. Although HBCUs also deal with issues of inclusion and representation, the strong presence of representative faculty could be a factor of emotional support..
Perhaps more indicative of the results is the primary mission of the university. The mission statement of Morehouse College directly states that the college “assumes special responsibility for teaching the history and culture of black people.” Tennessee State University is less direct, but nonetheless mentions its historical creation: “As an Historically Black College/University (HBCU), TSU fosters scholarly inquiry and research, lifelong learning, and a commitment to service.” The University of the District of Columbia says it has the responsibility “to build a diverse generation of competitive, civically engaged scholars and leaders.” Howard University, as well, states its mission to provide “an educational experience of exceptional quality… with particular emphasis upon educational opportunities for Black students.” In contrast, Georgia Tech “will realize our motto of ‘Progress and Service’ through effectiveness and innovation in teaching and learning, our research advances, and entrepreneurship in all sectors of society.” The University of Alabama strives “to advance the intellectual and social condition of the people of the State, the nation, and the world…” The Founding Grant of Stanford explains “Its nature, that of a university with such seminaries of learning as shall make it of the highest grade…Its object, to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life; And its purposes, to promote the public welfare…”
At HBCUs, providing an emotionally supportive environment for black students is a central part of their history and their current endeavors. It’s a fundamentally different focus than creating the newest technology, publishing the latest research, or simply having the best academic departments. These latter goals are neither insignificant nor incorrect; they simply serve different purposes. The question is not whether all universities should primarily focus on student support, but rather how directing the undergraduate focus of faculty to understand the importance of a support network can be extremely beneficial for students of all races. Creating incentives for professors to get to know their students, demonstrate an interest in their wellbeing, and mentor them towards their dreams in goals is a great step for supply-side changes. Stanford makes these attempts through Residential Fellows, Introductory Seminars, and Pre-Major Advisors. They have a long way to go before all Stanford students can look up to a faculty member that can relate to them on racial, cultural, and socioeconomic experiences, but the institutions to promote connections between students and faculty are there. Black HBCU graduates can teach us a lot about support networks that led to great jobs and thriving well being, but as more black graduates are receiving degrees from non-HBCUs – and as students across all races report a lack of emotional support and experiential learning opportunities – it is important for universities to make institutional changes while current students take advantage of their own education to ensure they make the most out of it.