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HBCUs Must Embrace Online Education

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by Reggie Smith III


Historically Black colleges and universities have been the cornerstone of education for the African-American community for more than 150 years. These institutions have prepared graduates to compete with the best and brightest minds globally, and I, as a graduate of historically Black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, stand as a testament to their transformative power. Now is the time for HBCUs to deliver this power via online learning.

Obama said HBCUs have a real opportunity to flourish and contribute to the president’s national goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. However, many HBCUs find themselves at a crossroads, not only in terms of dwindling enrollment and diminishing endowments but also in the area of technology, especially when it comes to online learning opportunities.

In 2007, the APLU-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning surveyed 42 National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education-member college presidents and chancellors. Of the respondents, slightly more than 84 percent said online education is critical to their long-term strategy. Almost 71 percent see it as a way to attract students from outside the traditional service area, and almost 64 percent tie it to increasing student access. And yet, just 18 percent of the nation’s 105 historically Black colleges are online, according to a study from Howard University’s Digital Learning Lab. By comparison, 66 percent of the nation’s two- and four-year postsecondary institutions offer college-level distance education courses, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The APLU-Sloan report provides some insight as to why so many HBCUs aren’t making the leap online: Nearly 78 percent of the respondents believe that students need more discipline to succeed in online courses, 70 percent see higher costs to develop classes online and almost 60 percent find a lack of acceptance of online instruction by faculty.

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None of these assumptions should stand in the way. Despite the reluctance on the part of some HBCU leaders to embrace online education, interestingly, the origins of distance learning within the HBCU community can be traced back to the Black College Satellite Network, founded in 1981 by Dr. Mabel P. Phifer and Dr. Walter C. Barwick. Even though the network is no longer around today, it set the stage for HBCUs to provide distance learning globally while providing K-12 programming to students in urban, suburban and rural school districts.

HBCUs, which have traditionally provided an education for people who might not otherwise had the opportunity, have an imperative to take their programs online. There has been incremental growth in the number of Black colleges offering degrees online, aided, in part, by Education Online Services Corporation, an online learning management company founded by Ezell Brown and led by former NAACP president Dr. Benjamin Chavis that provides support for HBCUs seeking to offer full-degree programs online. This and other initiatives come as for-profit online education companies like the University of Phoenix recruit and graduate an increasing number of African-American students. In fact, the University of Phoenix awards more bachelor’s degrees to African-American students than any HBCU.

HBCUs can and should compete. In addition to boosting their online programs, these colleges need to take note of what for-profit institutions are doing regarding marketing and leveraging best practices. According to TNS Media Intelligence, the University of Phoenix spent $222 million on domestic marketing in 2007. HBCUs generally lack such a massive marketing budget, but they can leverage free or low-cost marketing outlets like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and public access channels. HBCUs also should take heed of best practices and lessons learned from international associations like the United States Distance Learning Association and others. Few HBCUs are members of these associations. USDLA offers resources ranging from “free” Instructional Media Selection Guide to the Distance Learning Accreditation Board and Quality Standards Certification program, which provides best practices for distance learning.

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By leveraging these marketing outlets and best practices, HBCUs stand ready in the short term to help reach President Obama’s 2020 goal. Long term, they will be prepared to fulfill the American Dream for all students, both traditional and nontraditional. Our institutions need to step to the plate and deliver the rigorous learning environments that HBCUs are known for, whether via “brick and mortar” or “virtual” avenues. These are the HBCUs that created legendary giants like Langston Hughes, Oprah Winfrey, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and, of course, me.

Reggie Smith III is chairman of the Board of Directors for the United States Distance Learning Association and works for Booz Allen Hamilton, where he provide strategic planning in the area of distance education.

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