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HBCUs Are a Strong Alternative in the Graduate Marketplace

AUDIO | HBCUs Are a Strong Alternative in the Graduate Marketplace
The supportive nature of smaller colleges such as HBCUs provides them with a distinct advantage in the graduate education marketplace.

The following interview is with Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. Smaller colleges, especially historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), create a great deal of access to graduate programming for a wide range of students outside the traditional segment, but often have to compete with massive institutions who have far more resources at their disposal. In this interview, Gasman discusses the competitive advantages HBCUs have in this space, and shares her thoughts on the biggest challenges these schools face in growth and long-term success.

1. How critical are strong graduate degree programs to the mission of HBCUs?

With regards to graduate degree programs, it’s important to note that in some areas, STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] in particular, these graduate programs are really important. You’ll see them at places like Howard, at Purdue, at Morgan State — and all of those institutions are going to have graduate programs that are going to disproportionately prepare African-American students.

Graduate programs are important but undergraduate programs at HBCUs are always going to be the most important programs for the vitality and longevity of HBCUs.

2.  How important is it in terms of underserved populations for HBSUs to offer graduate-level programming?

It’s very important. As an example, if we were to talk about the HBCUs that are medical schools, those are graduate school programs [that enroll] many students who may not on paper have [top] credentials, but they have the drive to want to be a doctor or a dentist. Black colleges are much more likely to be lenient on the way in, but they have really stringent outcome indicators. They’re willing to take more chances on students because they realize people’s lives are complicated and people are complex and they change over time. It’s pretty much the same thing that happens at the undergraduate level with HBCUs, where you see them taking risks on students and then disproportionately graduating students.

[Another thing to note is that for] the really highly selective PhD program, in particular, people don’t typically pay to go to them. They receive a stipend and their tuition is paid, whereas for mid-range PhD programs, you have to pay. HBCUs do fall into that range but our tuition is about 50 per cent lower than the majority institutions’ tuition.

3. What are the biggest challenges HBCUs face when competing in the graduate education environment?

The very biggest challenge, especially if they want to compete for highly competitive students, is funding packages. As an example, at the University of Pennsylvania, at the program I’m a faculty member in, we give our students a package worth about $65,000 a year. You get guaranteed funding for four years [and] it covers your tuition, a stipend and your health benefits. We don’t accept that many students, though — only three into our program where we might have 150 people apply. Still, if you want to go after those very top students, you’re going to have to compete with that kind of package. That’s probably the biggest challenge.

There are some people who think going to graduate school at HBCUs is not beneficial. I would disagree with that. In fact, the latest dean of our school was a Howard grad. He went to Howard [University] for his PhD and he’s done incredibly well, so I definitely think it just all depends on the person.

4. Conversely, what are the greatest strengths that HBCUs bring to the table?

The absolute greatest strength, and you’re not going to find this at majority institutions, is that you are going to be in a classroom with people who look like you and have similar backgrounds, and you’re going to have African-American role models in front of you every day — and that is really powerful.

HBCUs are also known for having a very supportive and nurturing environment; rather than setting students up in a competitive, cutthroat nature, they’re noted for getting people to understand that our success is all tied together. Those two things, across the research, are very dominant and they’re very meaningful because what they do is they empower students.

5. What are a few strategies HBCUs can put into place to gain the upper hand on bigger universities when it comes to competing for graduate enrollments?

They have to stress the fact that they have talented faculty who have similar experiences to their students. HBCUs could do a much better job [of] telling people about their graduate programs and promoting them. A lot of times, you don’t really hear about them with the exception of Howard.

HBCUs could do a good job of talking about what they’re really good at. The fact that they have this cooperative spirit, rather than competitive spirit, is a big plus and they could be talking about that a lot more. Another thing you can do is you can bring back your successful students and do an ad campaign and how they’ve been contributing to new knowledge.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the competitive nature of graduate education marketplace and what HBCUs can do to carve out a larger market share?

The biggest thing they can do is let people know they have graduate programs. Collaborating with majority institutions is a good idea. If you look at Fisk University, they collaborate with Vanderbilt [University] on a physics program and it’s a great program because it gives students the opportunity to go to both institutions, to experience what a large research institution gives you and also experience what Fisk gives you. … You’re also seeing that at other institutions where they’re having joint programs. That’s a really good idea to get your name out there and really think about what you do.

This interview has been edited for length.

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