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New tactics needed to fix low HBCU graduation rates

Thurgood Marshall College Fund CEO thinks legendary Eddie Robinson got it right

In an effort to inspire his football players, legendary Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson 75 years ago decided to put a ring on it.

He would go room to room in the players’ dormitory, ringing his cowbell to wake them. At 6:30 in the morning.

His gut logic: If he could get them to breakfast, then he could get them to class.

In today’s vernacular, Robinson’s cowbell routine would be termed an intervention. An intervention that is sorely needed at today’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a Washington D.C.-based, nonprofit organization that represents 47 public HBCUs.

“We need intrusive academic and social counseling for our students,” Taylor told The Undefeated in a blunt assessment of the situation.

Some stunning statistics as the fall semester begins: The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education surveyed 64 of 100 historically black colleges and universities. Only five of those schools surveyed graduated more than 50 percent of their students.

The top five:

  1. Spelman College, 69 percent graduation rate;
  2. Howard, 65 percent;
  3. Hampton, 59 percent;
  4. Morehouse, 55 percent;
  5. Fisk University, 52 percent.

The graduation rates in the survey, using statistics from the U.S. Department of Education from 2014, was defined as all enrolled students who earned a degree within six years at the same institution.

“Nationally, for all schools [black and white], the graduation rate is 60 percent,” Taylor said. “So, no one really is doing a good job.”

The graduation rate for HBCUs is only 35 percent, Taylor said. The journal reported that at half of the HBCUs surveyed, the black student graduation rate is 34 percent or lower. And there are seven HBCUs in which fewer than one in five black students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

The statistics are startling because HBCUs, some which date to Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War (widely accepted as the period from 1865 to 1877), ostensibly were designed to improve an underserved community. HBCUs operate with a special mission in mind and a higher cause.

How TO improve their retention and graduation rates?

Asked to formulate outside-of-the box remedies, Taylor offered a three-point plan as a starter’s kit, though some possible cures and fix-it methods could be viewed as controversial:

  • Add a more intense layer to students’ risk assessment.

Many academically talented students attend HBCUs, often with the assistance of much-needed scholarships based on stellar achievement on the SAT-ACT testing apparatus, high school grade-point averages and writing skills. However, some HBCUs also promote what essentially are open admissions policies.

So, what about those students on the proverbial bubble?

“Frankly, we have a history of taking students with low standardized test scores and GPAs,” said Taylor, who earned his law degree from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. “That shows we are willing to take risks. We have to have a more individualistic way to assess students’ readiness for college. So, we have to look at other factors — like interviews.

“We need in-person, face-to-face interviews for some students who may not have the ‘classic profile’ of standardized test scores and GPA, but have true grit.”

Taylor then invoked the analogy of a job interview.

“We don’t make absolute decisions in hiring solely based on SATs or GPAs,” said Taylor, author of the book, The Trouble With HR: An Insider’s Guide to Finding and Keeping the Best People. “We have to rethink the process at HBCUs.”

Another advantage of the interview process, Taylor said, is that schools can better assess a student’s inherent needs or weaknesses before the student arrives on campus for classes. “What we are doing now is not working,” he said.

  • Increase emphasis on reinforcing positive social skills.

For many students, heading off to college marks the first time they have been away from home for more than a weekend. For them, college is viewed as a pathway to freedom, the first time that tethered grip from their parents has been unshackled.

That split also could spell trouble. Some students encounter time-management and behavioral issues, such as late-night carousing, excessive drinking, indifference, apathy and even laziness.

“A student doesn’t have to come to class, isn’t forced to do so,” Taylor said. “We need to let them know you have to be disciplined to survive in college. Don’t drink five nights a week and expect to be ready for an 8 o’clock class in the morning.”

Taylor offered two intervention techniques:

One focuses on personality tests, which also could be used during the admissions process at the entry level.

“We should use predictive tests and analytics,” Taylor said. “Essentially a series of personality test questions that can tell us about a kid’s grit, tenacity and reaction to adversity.”

The elements of grit and tenacity also invoke the hunger factor. “Let’s be honest,” Taylor said. “Some students don’t have the incentive to graduate college, may not be hungry enough.”

And there is another category, though much smaller in scope at HBCUs.

“We don’t talk about it in our community a lot,” Taylor said, “but there are some black kids who are trust-fund babies, just like white kids. They have other options in life, and don’t need to graduate college to have a good life.”

However, for the average black student, personality tests can be a useful tool, Taylor said.

For example, if a student makes a D or an F on a test or quiz, these personality testing methods can gauge a student’s resilience or ability to bounce back from that bad grade and stay the course.

Another solution is tantamount to bed and welfare checks and truancy interventions, similar to the practices of Robinson, who early in his career, also coached basketball and baseball, and trained the Grambling drill team for halftime shows, packed sandwiches for the players on road games, painted the chalk lines before games, called in game reports for the area newspaper and taped the players’ injured ankles and knees.

Simply put, Robinson was ubiquitous, and yes, a bit meddlesome — because he cared deeply.

“If you miss class, then someone should come looking for you,” Taylor said. “When you notice Johnny isn’t going to class, then you literally show up at Johnny’s room. HBCUs used to do this.”

So, something can be said for going old-school.

  • Stress the importance of financial literacy.

There’s a famous line from the movie All the President’s Men: “Follow the money.” For many students aspiring to be in the positive retention and graduation category, college success often hinges on more money, more money, more money.

Far too many end up being on the negative side of the ledger.

“Too many of our children come in undercapitalized,” Taylor said. “That means they come in without enough money for anything past the first semester.”

Most students are given guidelines to obtaining scholarships, grants, loans, work-study opportunities, and part-time jobs on or near their campuses. Quite often, though, it’s not about the availability of money, it’s about the money that is available.

Hence, financial literacy.

“We have gotten out of the practice of balancing checkbooks,” Taylor said. “A lot of our kids are first-generation college students. It’s a challenge to deal with parents of students who have bad financial skills.”

Sadly, a negative situation can be explained that simply.

And the proliferation of high technology, smartphones and computer programs apparently isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to increasing financial literacy skills. A more likely indicator: If parents practice financial skills detrimental to their well-being, those traits often are passed on to their children.

“Our kids largely don’t have that luxury of a wealth of financial resources,” Taylor said. “So, if they spend money and go broke, they’re gone.”


The obvious: Take financial literacy classes in high school. But what happens when those classes aren’t offered in grades nine through 12?

“Then, we have to work with the students — and parents — when they come to college,” Taylor said. “You just can’t tell people to go to any school they want to go to and not worry about the cost.”

Another possible solution: Mandate that all incoming college students take a financial literacy class during the first semester.

Besides the action steps listed, Taylor, named as one of the “Power 100” by Ebony magazine in its list of the 100 most influential black Americans, recommends a change in attitudes and outlook on the part of many in the black community.

Two words: education shaming.

We’ve all seen that poignant and powerful mantra promoting the United Negro College Fund: “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” Hatched by the much-respected advertising firm Young & Rubicam in 1971, the slogan espouses the benefits of black folk attending four-year colleges.

However, Taylor, like many other critics, advocates furthering other forms of educational training for young people, instead of focusing solely on mainstream institutions.

“It seems we’re telling our kids that if you don’t go to a four-year school,” Taylor said, “then you are wasting your mind.”

Which brings us to two-year schools, one-year associate’s degree programs, community colleges, trade schools and the like. Years ago, classes in the industrial arts were common nationwide in middle and high schools. A 16-year-old could learn such skills as welding, auto mechanics, drafting, carpentry — to the point where a high school graduate could sign on as an apprentice in the construction industry or at a machine shop.

Those occupational pursuits would be extremely valuable in today’s economy.

“If a kid can’t go to a four-year college, it doesn’t mean your life is over,” Taylor said. “Especially if you are good with your hands.”

What about former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ idea of free college for everyone?

Not a good idea, Taylor said, even though many students exit college in massive debt. There’s something called vested interest. Or skin in the game.

“No kid who has the desire to go to college should be prevented from attending,” Taylor said. “But just because it’s free doesn’t mean everyone has the right to go. They may have the opportunity but not a visceral desire; that’s two different issues that nonetheless are inextricably linked.”

Which brings us back to the core mission statement of most HBCUs.

“Many of our students aren’t reading at the basic grade level,” Taylor said. “Some kids are so ill-prepared that our job is to fix what everybody before us have failed at during the previous 12 years of schooling.”

HBCUs have a lot on their plates, for sure.

Similar to Robinson’s tenure in 55 years as Grambling football coach. His early-morning ringing routine helped him achieve an 85 percent graduation rate with his players, he claimed.

As Robinson once said, “You can’t unring a bell.”

Gregory Clay is an editor, writer and television/podcast commentator focusing on current news events. Based in Washington D.C., he has worked at Newsday and McClatchy and once gave a speech at a convention for the Texas State Bar Association.