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HBCU’s, Identity Politics Liberals and the Common Good

While the media remains fascinated by the racial and gender distribution of voters—which is newsworthy—the divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters is exposing another weakness in the left’s coalition—the gap between identity politics liberals and economic justice liberals.

This divide is most clearly illustrated in the main reason Congressman Clyburn identified for endorsing Secretary Clinton, namely, that Senator Sanders’s proposal to offer fully subsidized college tuition will harm historically black colleges and universities.

Clyburn said, “[If] you start handing out two years of free college at public institutions are you ready for all the black, private HBCUs to close down? That’s what’s going to happen.”

The Washington Post reported that Clyburn said he has been unable to get Sanders to shift his policy position on the allocation of federal anti-poverty resources and to accommodate a larger number of black colleges in the signature Sanders’ proposal for free public college tuition.

What is most telling about Clyburn’s critique is how eerily similar it is to conservative talking points, adding, there are no “free lunches.”

While Clyburn’s argument against universal higher education has been widely reported, few mainstream sources, with the exception of Salon, have challenged the merit as well as the undemocratic tenets undergirding Clyburn’s criticism.

Why exactly would Sanders plan harm HBCU’s?

Simply put, by making public colleges and universities free, private HBCU’s would become uncompetitive as black students choose more affordable public institutions.    

It is understandable that this unintended consequence should be noted and even mourned.

HBCU’s have served and continue to serve an important role in black uplift. HBCUs have produced 17% of all black bachelor’s degrees, 25% of all black teachers, and 22% of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. Most notably, HBCU’s are responsible for producing 70% of black doctors and dentists, and 35% of black lawyers.

This is impressive.

However, fewer and fewer black students are choosing HBCU’s. The portion of bachelor’s degrees awarded to black students by HBCUs has steadily dropped from 35% in 1976 to 21.5% in 2001. In 2011, HBCUs saw a 14 percent decline in overall enrollment. Today, HBCU’s enroll a mere 9% of all black students.

In addition, there are legitimate concerns that many HBCU’s are failing black students.

Graduation Rates

  • While 59% of all first-time college students, attending full-time, graduate in six years, the six-year graduation rate for HBCU’s is 35%.
  • This graduation rate is lower than the overall rate for African-American students, which is 39.5 percent.

Student Loan Default

  • 42% of the 116 colleges and universities with a default rate of 10 percent or higher are HBCUs.
  • HBCUs have the highest student loan default rate among all public colleges in 19 states. (There are only 21 states with HBCUs.)
  • Eight of the top 10 colleges and universities around the country with the highest student loan default rates are HBCU’s.

To be fair, HBCU’s often enroll students who are economically disadvantaged and these numbers reflect these realities. Nonetheless, these numbers also indicate that black enrollees are not always being well-served.

Furthermore, despite the special place HBCU’s hold in the heart of many African-Americans, they are increasingly less black.

Diverse Student Bodies

  • One in four HBCU student is not black.
  • Since 2000, HBCUs have more than doubled their enrollment of Asian students and have increased Hispanic student enrollment by 90%.
  • Between 2000 and 2010, white student enrollment increased 55%.
  • Some HBCUs have minority black population; Bluefield State College has a 13% black enrollment; West Virginia State University has a 17% black enrollment

That’s right. Those are state schools; public institutions. In fact, 51% of all HBCUs are public institutions Failing to account for this detail is just one of the many ways that Clyburn’s critique of Sanders was disingenuous. Far from hurting HBCU’s, a slight majority of them would benefit from Sanders plan. They would be fully included in Sanders’ program to provide free public education to all public school attendees.

In fact, public HBCUs are the ones black students are choosing. It is public HBCUs that have experienced the most growth. Between 2000-2010, there was a 53% in­crease in enrollment at public HBCUs while private institutions only grew by 13%.

Given these facts, the claim that Sanders’ education plan would harm HBCUs is at best misguided and certainly misleading. More importantly, resisting the candidate who wants to do the most to support public education, in fact, hurts black students who are the most harmed by the current system.

Students Loans Hurt Black Americans Most

  • In 2012, more than 52% of black students took out student loans, compared to 42% of whites.
  • Black borrowers owe 22% more in student loans.
  • Between 2000-2014, more than 50% of all black graduates took out student loans of more than $25,000 compared to 34% of white graduates.

This is a national crisis that is hitting black Americans especially hard—a crisis which Sanders has pushed into the political debate.

It is because of Sanders that the ever-politically malleable Secretary Clinton has made an effort to address the student debt crisis in her plan. It is his plan that would most benefit all Americans, including black Americans who are disproportionately harmed by higher education costs and the student lending industry.

That Congressman Clyburn and other Hillary supporters who have used this racially charged tactic against Sanders are willing to sacrifice the welfare of all American young people—young people whose student loan debt now looms above $1 trillion—because the policy is less than optimal for about 50 institutions in a nation that has over 2000 four-year colleges and universities alone is the very definition of special interest politics.

That this critique of Sanders in no way benefits the majority of black Americans, who overwhelmingly do not attend private HBCU’s, is indicative of the extent to which identity politics liberals have lost their moral core.

Let us note that Sanders’ plan makes no provision for private women’s colleges, Christian colleges, for-profit colleges, or any variety of non-public institution. Yet, journalists have allowed Congressman Clyburn’s subtle suggestion that Sanders’ plan is racist to go unchecked.

And it has gone unchecked because identity politics liberals have cast a fear far and wide among the well-intentioned—whites who fear being called racist and blacks who fear being called Uncle Toms are all shamed into silence—as they spout critical race theory buzzwords, which contribute little to black welfare and even less to improving race relations.

The greatest victims of these shenanigans are black people.

Carolyn Hyppolite is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.


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HBCU’s, Identity Politics Liberals and the Common Good