HBCU’s – Restoring the Burden of Expectations

The Burden of Expectations

The historical context of higher education in America is marked by notable disparities, particularly between Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Early HBCUs, established primarily during the late 1800s, bore an immense “burden of expectations,” a phenomenon that was largely absent in their white counterparts.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) indicates that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, HBCUs had to constantly prove the preparedness and competence of their graduates. The burden of expectations on early HBCUs was multi-faceted and deeply rooted in the social, political, and economic contexts of the time.

Firstly, there was a societal burden. As a result, these institutions were under constant pressure to showcase their graduates as not just equal, but superior to their counterparts from PWIs. This societal burden extended to the students too, who were expected to uphold the honor and reputation of their institution and their community.

Secondly, there was a political burden. Legislators, especially in southern states, often questioned the relevance and effectiveness of HBCUs. Given the racially segregated and discriminatory political environment of the time, these institutions had to continually demonstrate their worth and validity. They had to produce graduates of exceptional caliber to secure continued funding and political support.

Thirdly, there was an economic burden. HBCUs were typically underfunded when compared to PWIs, further complicating their mission. Despite limited resources, they were expected to deliver education on par with, if not superior to, well-funded PWIs.

This burden of expectations on early HBCUs was immense, but it drove these institutions and their students to strive for excellence and disprove prevailing labels. They became centers of African American intellectualism and learning, pushing back against widespread racial prejudice. Despite their challenges, HBCUs achieved remarkable success, producing a significant portion of African American professionals and leaders during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Lack of Expectations

Today, we see a growing skepticism about the value of a college education. A 2018 Gallup poll reported that only 48% of U.S. adults expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, down from 57% in 2015. This decline in confidence is even more stark among those with a college degree, dropping from 56% to 48% in the same period.

This growing skepticism is partly attributed to the perception that college graduates are inadequately prepared for the workforce. A study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) found that only 33% of business leaders think that colleges and universities are doing a good job preparing students for the challenges of today’s global economy.

One of the contributing factors for this trend is the lack of a “burden of expectations” that was once prevalent in HBCUs. While institutions are sensitive to licensure passage rates in a limited number of disciplines, there is a glaring absence of meaningful expectations set by most state legislators, governing boards, or accountability-assigned government agencies.

The burden of expectations, once a cornerstone of the HBCU experience, has waned significantly in modern higher education, contributing to a decline in perceived value. A key element of this trend is the lack of meaningful, measurable expectations set by state legislators, governing boards, and university presidents.

Establishing Expectations

Institutions today are largely sensitive to licensure passage rates only in a few disciplines, like medicine and law. However, such metrics are not applied uniformly across all disciplines, leading to a lack of comprehensive accountability. When institutions are not held to a certain standard, the motivation to meet or exceed that standard diminishes, resulting in a decline in the overall quality of education.

Accreditation, a quality assurance process that higher education institutions undergo to confirm they meet certain standards, is often seen as a means of accountability. However, upon closer examination, the effectiveness of this process in ensuring real accountability is questionable.

Accreditation agencies primarily focus on compliance to process. They typically review an institution’s resources, governance, curriculum, faculty qualifications, and student services to ensure they meet predetermined standards. While these factors may contribute to a baseline level of quality, compliance to process does not necessarily translate into meaningful educational outcomes or student success.

For example, an institution could have a well-qualified faculty, comprehensive curriculum, and adequate resources but still fall short in effectively imparting knowledge or preparing students for the workforce. Simply ticking boxes on a compliance checklist does not guarantee that students are learning effectively or that they will be equipped with the necessary skills for their future careers.

Moreover, the accreditation process does not establish expectations related to real results, such as competency-based assessments or post-graduation outcomes. These factors, which provide a more direct measure of an institution’s effectiveness in educating its students, are often overlooked in accreditation reviews.

In effect, accreditation can provide a veneer of accountability without necessarily ensuring that institutions are delivering on their primary mission: to educate students and prepare them for the future. Thus, while accreditation is an important part of the higher education landscape, it should not be viewed as the sole or even primary means of holding institutions accountable for their performance. There is a clear need for additional, more results-oriented measures of accountability in higher education.

This issue is further compounded by the absence of a system of rewards and sanctions tied to performance. The National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC) has highlighted that without a system to scrutinize and hold institutions accountable, the focus on student learning and preparation for the workforce has significantly diminished.

Addressing this issue requires a hard look at the current state of higher education. It necessitates a shift in perspective, a reevaluation of our expectations, and a rejuvenation of the burden of expectations that early HBCUs bore.

Measuring Expectations

State legislators, governing boards, and university presidents need to work together to set clear, measurable expectations for higher education institutions. This could involve setting a more meaningful set of expectations that directly measure and reflect student learning and preparedness for the workforce. For instance, state legislators, governing boards, and university presidents might consider:

1.       Competency-Based Assessments: These can provide a more accurate measure of student learning than traditional grades. By assessing students’ mastery of specific skills or knowledge areas, these assessments can offer a clearer picture of what students are actually learning.

2.       Employer Feedback: Feedback from employers who hire recent graduates can provide valuable insights into whether students are effectively prepared for the workforce. This could be collected through surveys or interviews.

3.       Post-Graduation Outcomes: Rather than simply looking at whether students graduate, it may be more telling to examine what students do after graduation. This could include job placement rates in relevant fields, salary levels, or rates of advancement in their careers.

4.       Student Feedback: Students themselves can provide important perspectives on their learning experiences. Regular surveys or other forms of feedback can help institutions identify strengths and areas for improvement.

5.       Lifelong Learning Opportunities: Valuing institutions that offer opportunities for lifetime learners and recognizing their contribution to the community can be an important aspect of setting expectations.

The adoption of these measures could help to create a more nuanced and comprehensive set of expectations for higher education institutions. Combined with a system of rewards and sanctions, such measures could encourage institutions to focus more squarely on student learning and workforce preparedness, thereby enhancing the quality and value of higher education.

Moreover, by implementing these improvements, we can create an environment that promotes excellence, just as the early HBCUs did. By restoring the burden of expectations, we can enhance our higher education system and better prepare our graduates for the challenges of the 21st-century workforce.

Restoring the Burden of Expectations – by Robin Capehart (substack.com)

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