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HBCUs: Vital to U.S. Competitiveness

Since 1837, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been educating and preparing, primarily, but far from exclusively, African American students – nearly a quarter of HBCU students are non-Black – to contribute to the American experience. These institutions help fill the nation’s dual pipeline of productivity: providing diversely talented employees and creating employment opportunities. They consistently add both workers and job-creation to their state and local economies.

Despite being historically under-resourced, in 2014, the nation’s 101 accredited HBCUs injected $14.8 billion in direct spending impact to the national economy, adding more than 134,000 jobs, on- and off-campus, according to a recently published landmark study, HBCUs Make America Strong: The Positive Economic Impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, commissioned by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

The study sheds an important light on HBCUs in the modern era. The institutions, spanning 19 states, Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands, disproportionately take on the challenge of providing first-generation, low-income, minority, rural and inner-city students the opportunity to earn college degrees.

Impressively, for example, HBCUs comprise just three percent of all nonprofit colleges and universities, but enroll 10 percent of African American college students, and are responsible for 17 percent of African Americans earning their bachelor’s degrees and 24 percent of African Americans earning their credentials in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The UNCF study is a wonderful contribution – a foundation stone on which we can pursue new areas of exploration to develop enduring strategies and attract commensurate investment to increase the all too often unheralded or overlooked value of America’s HBCUs.


Connecting to Innovation Ecosystems        

To build on our nation’s leadership position in the global economy, over the past half-century, America has invested heavily in developing the world’s most advanced countrywide network of regional innovation ecosystems to support talent development, creativity, research, commercialization, entrepreneurship and job creation. Unfortunately, the government, philanthropic, business and community leaders who have led the rise of – and maintain stewardship within – these fantastic ecosystems have not been successful connecting these forward-looking investments to HBCUs and the populations and communities they principally serve. This undermines prospects to grow and equip a deep and diverse enough pool of Americans to power national prosperity for generations to come.

The absence of inclusive and diverse innovation ecosystems demands the development and adoption of frameworks and strategies embedded with the magnificent contributions of HBCUs. The ROI: HBCUs can help more Americans improve their connectivity to and productivity within the 21st century economy.


Endgame: More Talent to Fuel U.S. Competitive Advantage

For most of the 20th century, those principally served by HBCUs were not able to contribute their full talent to the national economy. Yet, in those days, America could economically lead the globe with proverbially one hand tied behind her back.

In other words, back then, U.S. economic competitiveness was assured even without optimal productivity from large swaths of our population. This is no longer the case.

In today’s economy, where relentless global competition for jobs and opportunity is the new normal, the immutable laws of economic prosperity do not allow America to sustain global leadership without greater contributions from more Americans – especially the latent and untapped abilities of those principally served by HBCUs.

In January, President Trump attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Of note, Klaus Schwab, Founder of the World Economic Forum, may have put it best when he said, “Capital is being superseded by creativity and the ability to innovate – and therefore by human talents – as the most important factors of production. If talent is becoming the decisive factor, we can be confident in stating that capitalism is being replaced by talentism.”

In the age of “talentism,” awakening the dormant abilities of more Americans and connecting them to the economy is the most promising path to new wealth generation, greater new job-creation and increased business output. These enhancements will improve our national economic competitiveness and quality of life for Americans, and, importantly, strengthen our national security.

Quite simply, the American economy grows more competitive when educational access is widely available. Our nation’s HBCUs broaden education access, and their positive impact on the country is undeniable. The White House Initiative on HBCUs is excited to partner across the federal government and with the private sector to foster investment in HBCUs to grow their contributions to America; as such, contributions are vital to the competitiveness of the United States.


Johnathan M. Holifield, pictured above, is Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.