Can HBCUs Compete?
Filed in Features on October 24, 2012
Richard F. America, professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., offers strategies on how historically Black colleges and universities can compete in today’s world of higher education. JBHE invites readers to comment on Professor America’s proposals.
There is still some debate about whether racially identified higher education is necessary or desirable. But 100 schools exist, and the basic question is, can they compete?
In recent decades, several of these schools have emerged as selective, modern, well governed, and sustainable. They attract high quality applicants, produce well-educated and fully prepared graduates, and have faculty teaching at high levels and creating published scholarship that is recognized widely. But most HBCUs still struggle, require ongoing subsidies, and seem unable to improve sufficiently to raise their competitive standing.
Is there an approach that can ensure more than basic viability, and can lead to HBCUs that can compete with all other institutions similarly situated? Can they rise in the rankings, rather than stagnate at low levels on the lowest tiers?
If HBCUs change in the right way, they can succeed. But they must want to change. As they change, they can attract corporate and alumni support and general public funding.
Strategic directors on Boards of Trustees and others can find new ways to think about their mission, and the basic function and positioning of HBCUs, in relation to similarly situated institutions.
- Seek to rise in the rankings to the next highest tier by 2030.
- Identify two “aspiration schools” in the next higher tier, and emulate them.
- Understand their SWOT—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
- Identify the SWOT of the aspiration schools.
- Select boards that have the same qualities as the boards of the aspiration schools.
- Select presidents who have the same qualities as the presidents of the aspiration schools, and pay her/him accordingly.
- Regularly review cluster and value chain relationships, and strengthen them.
- Select one department—economics, math, biology or chemistry would be good examples—and build a core of very strong faculty that can make it truly outstanding.
- Establish strong student organizations and extracurricular programs that produce mature, thoughtful, polished professional women and men.
- Establish standards for sororities and fraternities, and similar groups, that create an academic and service ethos, and end the era of the rap and hip-hop mentality. These have been destructive and anti-intellectual forces on campuses.
When asked about the major challenges they face, too many HBCU leaders point to lack of financial resources, first. Too few adequately address the central constraints of lack of compelling vision, failure to understand competitiveness threats, and lack of competitiveness. They tend to see the problem, overwhelmingly, as a lack of outside resources, rather than primarily poor strategic positioning and poor leadership.
The basic missions of the HBCUs are, first, addressing the educational needs of segments of the student market who need access to high quality education, often with some remedial attention, and, second, research and community and public service.
Benchmark and Emulate
Many HBCUs lack quality strategic thinking at the board policy level and lack high quality strategic leadership from presidents. HBCUs should identify two schools in the rankings at the tier above where they stand and use them as a benchmark. Adopt their best practices. Imitate their most successful policies and practices.
Between 2012 and 2030, the HBCUs will face increasing competitive challenges. They have to adapt and change. They have to come to see themselves as competitors in markets in which they previously had something of a monopoly. But they also have to compete for students and faculty in markets from which they were previously excluded.
HBCUs are part of a value chain. Most HBCUs draw most students from high schools that prepared them inadequately. Some of these HBCUs then add value, and pass the graduates on to employers, who place a higher or lower value on them than on other available candidates. If HBCUs can add greater recognized and actual value, and produce more mature, thoughtful, polished, and attractive graduates, they will come to enjoy advantages over other similarly situated competitors.
Likewise, most HBCUs are situated such that they could consciously operate as members of clusters. Universities as part of commercial clusters include, Stanford in Silicon Valley, MIT and Harvard in Boston, North Carolina State, Duke and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in the Research Triangle. In the latter case, for example, why are Saint Augustine’s College, in Raleigh, and North Carolina Central University, in Durham, not more engaged in that commercial cluster than they are? Obviously, they do not have the resources to do front rank technical research. They are not top-ranked research universities. But there can be beneficial relationships that take advantage of their location and produce mutual gains.
Some HBCUs are geographically isolated. But even they can use information technology to participate in clusters. For them, and the others, heightened awareness of the clusters they are, or could be, in can enhance their future competitiveness. They must understand their role in those clusters, and the advantages that participation conveys. And they must fully understand the competitive advantages of their location, history, programs, faculty, alumni networks, and funding bases. Most seem not to see their strategic situation clearly enough.
Thinking of HBCUs explicitly in competitive terms may jar some supporters, faculty, administrators, and some donors who approach the giving function as a humanitarian calling. Professor Michael Porter’s innovations in thinking about competitiveness offer a basis for thinking about how to rise in the rankings.
Porter created several key tools that HBCUs can use to help them understand their situations more clearly. The Diamond, The Five Forces, Value Chain Analysis, Cluster Analysis, and the idea of Competitive Advantage.
The ‘Diamond’ can help them analyze their circumstances no matter where they are in the rankings. The Diamond was created to help corporations and sovereign nations develop economic and business policy. But we can apply it to colleges and universities. If an HBCU is weak on any competitive factor, it’s policy leaders can see where attention and resources must be focused.
Using five forces analysis can help determine how attractive the HBCUs will be to faculty, students and donors. These market forces help set how much tuition the college can charge, how efficiently it can operate, and how much added financial resources it needs to move up in the rankings. HBCUs will gain competitive advantage according to how well they deliver quality education and related services.
HBCUs buy faculty and staff, and technology and equipment and supplies. And they manage institutional infrastructure. That includes the bursar, registrar, and other offices. All of this adds value for students and for their eventual employers. But how much is this value added worth in starting salaries of graduates, and in other ways? Most HBCUs have not been comfortable thinking of themselves and their mission in these terms. Too many still express their mission only in softer terms. That can change as they look at their situation in more competitive terms.
HBCUs cannot expect to do what Tier 1 schools can do—charge premium tuition. But as they get better, they can earn more corporate and other donor and alumni support. This will be because of continuous improvement, rather than from obligation or sense of charity.
They can differentiate themselves, innovate, and educate by creating extra value that makes their graduates more attractive to employers than other similar schools in their tier. HBCUs can innovate and gain competitive advantage by finding better ways to teach, and especially to polish and transform. This is what Dr. Benjamin Mays understood and accomplished at Morehouse. An HBCU can be greater than the limits set by its resource constraints. That requires strategic leadership.
Doing a good job of understanding and managing the linked relationships with government, other colleges, businesses and other institutions, can be another basis for competitive advantage that can help them rise in the rankings.
HBCUs can do better at continuously improving efficiency and reducing costs. Success in this can also be a basis for competitive advantage with other schools in the tier. HBCUs can achieve low costs in every function from public relations, alumni relations, faculty development, dormitory and dining hall management, and so on. They can compete by doing the best job in managing relations with food suppliers, and sources of equipment, as well. All this can help them move to the next higher tier.
Clusters are geographic concentrations of businesses and institutions and government agencies. Clusters include suppliers, and customers. Both give feedback on what can be improved. The cluster also includes services, such as counselors, textbook, and student loan providers.
An HBCU’s cluster will include government, departments of education, and many other agencies, the United Negro College Fund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the case of land grant universities, accrediting agencies, and scholarly and professional associations that train, educate, and support libraries, technology centers and so on. This kind of analysis of an HBCU’s cluster offers a way to grasp how the aspiration schools in the next higher tier do business so as to be able to better compete with them. Looking at the clusters they are part of will point to how the HBCU can better manage the linkages it has, and create new ones. The cluster can include other colleges, including other HBCUs, who compete and also collaborate with each other.
The HBCU and the other cluster members can achieve economies of scale in purchasing and in maintenance services. So a cluster gives the HBCU benefits that it would not achieve in isolation. Mapping the cluster, and continually updating it, can disclose potential beneficial relationships that could have been overlooked.
HBCUs can also use basic SWOT analysis. What are their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats? For most the strengths are a few dedicated and committed faculty, who understand how to reach students who are poorly prepared for college, and how to inspire some of them to achieve to their full potential. Others may have one or two relatively strong departments that can be highlighted for consistent production of successful graduates.
But weaknesses will seem to overcome strengths for too many. Low quality faculty, except for a few stars, inadequate infrastructure and facilities, a weak financial base, poor alumni support, inadequate leadership, low enrollments, and unattractiveness to the pool of applicants desired are all weaknesses.
Opportunities include the possibility of innovations in selected areas of the curriculum and financial support from new partners, including corporate partners. Threats come from political weakness, loss of accreditation, and the growing attractiveness of White colleges for their applicants. The HBCUs are important institutions for their own sake. African Americans do not yet have many strong well-run institutions. So, a new effective communications program that convinces millions of African Americans that they have an obligation to financially support these schools can pay dividends. This requires a new framework, and a new way of thinking about the HBCUs—as competitive, rather than based on an appeal to compassion, such as in, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” That calls up pity. That is not the strongest basis for securing real broad-based financial support.
Move Up in the Rankings
The objective should be to move up in the rankings. HBCUs can move up one full level by 2030. To move up in the rankings, each HBCU should, first, examine who is on the board of trustees of the aspiration schools in the next higher tier, and then redesign its own board so that it has a similar size and composition.
Next, each school should do the same with its president and number two academic officer. Look at the aspiration schools. Who is the president and academic vice president and then hire persons who are close to them in qualifications and experience, and charge them with moving up in the rankings. That will require incentives and competitive compensation. It will be the most important advantage and the key to gaining competitive advantage.