New Visions Commentary: Affirmative Action Hurts Historically Black Colleges and Universities, by Sean Turner

Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia, having recently lost its accreditation, has suspended its sports programs and laid off its coaches.

Unfortunately, Morris Brown is not alone among a growing list of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, that are facing extinction due to financial or academic woes. Grambling State University in Louisiana, known for legendary football coach Eddie Robinson, faces a similar threat due to accounting discrepancies.

As many as six HBCUs have recently been given warnings or been placed on probation by accreditation agencies. Many others are struggling with budget shortfalls, ill-prepared students and inadequate facilities. Financial mismanagement notwithstanding, what other significant factor has contributed to the bleak future of HBCUs? The answer lies at the feet of an initiative whose intent was to redress past racial and sexual discrimination: affirmative action.

The history of HBCUs predates the Civil War. Cheyney University, the first HBCU, was founded by Richard Humphreys in Pennsylvania in 1837. Humphreys was a Quaker philanthropist from Philadelphia who started the then-named “Institute for Colored Youth” to counter the prevailing practice of limiting or prohibiting the education of blacks.

Despite the economic effects of the Great Depression, between 1929 and 1940, enrollment at HBCUs rose by 66 percent compared to a rise of 36 percent at all colleges. By 1940, 85 percent of blacks that attended college went to HBCUs.

Desegregation, however, provided the opportunity for blacks to attend traditionally white schools. Naturally, this drew some of the brightest black students and professors away from traditionally black colleges in the process. In 1965, an executive order issued by President Lyndon Johnson required government contractors to “take affirmative action” toward prospective minority employees in all aspects of hiring and employment. This order was later amended in 1967 to cover discrimination on the basis of gender.

Increasingly, many HBCUs are having trouble competing for students, faculty and money. Major public and private schools began aggressively recruiting black applicants to meet racial quotas precipitated by affirmative action. By 1971, only 34 percent of black college students were enrolling in HBCUs and that figure dropped to just 18 percent in 2000. Declining enrollments led some schools to market themselves to a broader demographic, with low tuitions attracting an increasing number of white students.

Today, there are roughly 105 HBCUs. However, over the past 26 years, 12 HBCU’s have closed – primarily due to money problems resulting from declining enrollments and endowments. Contributing to this phenomenon is the continual push for racial quotas in predominately white colleges in the guise of so-called “diversity initiatives.”

As government officials, civil rights leaders and others remain steadfast in their support of such discriminatory practices, a significant number of black students continually fail or drop out of colleges in which they are unprepared to compete academically.

These are among the many unintended consequences of affirmative action or quotas. Many supporters of both the existence of HBCUs and affirmative action either ignore or fail to realize the cancerous relationship between the two.

As the admissions standards of predominately white colleges are continually lowered to satisfy the “diversity” façade, so too is the viability of HBCUs – save a few. Will supporters of affirmative action and HBCUs acknowledge this trend, and decide which is more precious? Perhaps, but only after more HBCUs follow in the footsteps of Morris Brown, and legacies of academic achievement among blacks in America have been lost to the history books.


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