I visited Howard University on the same day that I went to American. I spent only three hours there, but I gathered some interesting information and impressions. I also made a Pinterest page using some photos that I took and some taken by others.
Founded in 1867, Howard came into being through a charter signed by President Andrew Johnson. I found it interesting that Howard, a historically black school, is named for a white man. The university is named for General Oliver Howard, a West Point graduate, Civil War general and abolitionist who commanded the Freedman’s Bureau to tend to the care of emancipated slaves after the Civil War. General Howard’s residence is still maintained on campus. Howard has many prominent alumni including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, author and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, actors Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad. among others. Overall, the university reports that it has graduated more than 100,000 people in its history.
While American, Catholic and even GW have shifted to test-optional admissions, Howard remains test mandatory. The mean SAT is just over 1100, the mean ACT 24. Last year only 35 percent of those applied to join this year’s freshman class got in. Those who might have gotten into Tulane, Southern Cal or Penn qualified for exceptionally generous awards that included tuition and fees, room and board as well as a book voucher and laptop for the very best admits. The largest awards are very hard to turn down. Howard also competes in 19 NCAA Division I sports; athletic awards are available as well.
Howard University is the only historically-black school that is a private national research university. It is known as the Mecca for its academic breath and stature among historically black colleges. In terms of academic offerings and city setting the most comparable schools are Tulane, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. These schools all have undergraduate schools of architecture, arts and science, business, education, engineering and nursing. Like these schools Howard also has a law school, a medical school, a nursing program and a teaching hospital. Howard also has a divinity school. None of these other comparable schools do.
But Howard has fewer undergraduates (around 7,000) than any of these schools as well as 3,000 students in the graduate and professional degree programs. I had to imagine that resources were stretched thin though some students might have received a more personalized education than they would have received at a larger university.
Howard University’s endowment was approximately $587 million in FY 2014, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Tulane’s was more than twice this amount. Howard’s undergraduate student body is about the same size as American’s, Fordham’s or Villanova’s. Those schools had endowments of $566 million, $675 million and $510 million, respectively. But none of these schools operate a medical school or dental school, as Howard does. The only similarly-sized school that appears be stretched thinner than Howard is Hofstra, which has a law school, a medical school and a dental school on an endowment of $400 million. Interestingly, if you open a copy of the U.S. News guide, you would see that Howard and Hofstra rank the same.
But the students who apply to Howard University do not liken their school to Hofstra. They compare it to the Ivies as well as some of the better city-based private universities such as Tulane and Southern Cal. Those who want a DC address for college shop Howard against American, GW and Georgetown. The only other historically black school considered competition is Spelman, for women who want a city school, but prefer a liberal arts college setting.
Yet the endowment issue is serious. Unlike the public historically black schools, Howard is located in a place that is not a state. Washington DC elects a mayor and city council, but is governed by Congress. Howard is a private university, yet it receives a Congressional appropriation of around $200 million a year. In 2014 the appropriation was reduced by $12 million. The university’s original Act of Incorporation requires that it deliver an annual financial report to Congress. Howard cannot afford over the long term to depend on a fiscally conservative Congress to be such as significant portion of its sources of funding. The shame is that the university’s alumni giving rate, as reported to U.S. News, is around six percent. That’s worse than most similar city-based private universities as well as state universities.
Howard’s tuition and fees start at around $24,000, lower than most flagship state universities charge out-of-state students. These prices are also competitive with the charges assessed upon out-of-state students who attend North Carolina A&T, a public historically black school that is also a research university. A year at Howard will cost around $47,000, not much more than GW or Georgetown charges for tuition and fees alone. However, according to the Project on Student Debt, the average borrower who graduated in 2014 owed over $32,000. Eighty-two percent took out loans, high for any school of any size. This also tells me that Howard, while trying to maintain a reasonable price point, still attracts too many students who struggle to cover the costs of their education. Nearly half of Howard undergraduates qualify for Federal Pell Grants, yet these do not increase in amounts that match up with tuition and fee increases.
Howard does a decent job retaining its freshmen. Eighty-two percent of the students who arrived in 2014 returned for their sophomore year. However, less than half finish in four years. Over a fifth of the students major in the biological sciences or health professions; this does not even consider those who chose to major in the other sciences, engineering, computer science or architecture. A high concentration of students in these majors will reflect on the graduation rate as well as student debt. But there is still concern about the preparedness of the students for the work when the majority need to stick around beyond a fourth year.
When I visited Howard I was told that the DC area was not always the attraction for students, unless they were interested in the health professions or politics. I checked this out on LinkedIn.com and found that less than half of the nearly 43,000 Howard alumni registered there lived or worked around the Baltimore-Washington Corridor. There are more Howard alumni around New York and Atlanta than there are around Baltimore. There are also alumni communities of 1,000 or more in Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. Interestingly, Howard is the first school where I learned that alumni returned to campus to help freshmen move in. Howard’s alumni base, given the academic scope of the school, has to be among the strongest in the African-American community.
I have not visited another historically black college since starting Educated Quest. The most comparable schools to me are Jesuit universities. I make this comparison because Jesuit schools and historically black colleges exist to help build and maintain an identity, provide for students to advocate, lead and care in the service of others, and deliver an education.
The major reason for students to choose Howard over a public university or a more diverse private research university is to reinforce an identity and see others most similar to you in leadership, service and academic pursuits. Howard fulfills the academic and service roles well. It also puts students in leadership positions in alternate break projects as well as in opportunities to serve. Most other universities that run similar projects ask less of their students. Also, interestingly, freshman halls at Howard are single-sex. Jesuit schools have either single-sex halls or alternating floors that are single sex in their co-ed dorms.
But one major difference between Howard and Jesuit schools is that Greek life is important at the historically black school. More than a third of Howard students–the community is over 60 percent women–pledge. It hosts the mother chapters for two national African-American fraternities as well as three sororities. All of the Divine Nine sororities have chapters here. Howard is one school where I would recommend that students consider Greek life. The organizations are far more visible and influential than they are at other DC-area schools.
If someone was to tell me that Howard is one of the most important universities in the United States, I would not argue. It has been an aspirational institution in the African American community for nearly 150 years. It was truly the “elite” institution in times when equal access was far from the law of the land. It has an alumni network too large, and too successful, to have the financial problems that the school has experienced. For the long term the school should aim to place itself in the position where it should not need to depend on the hopes that the political winds will blow the right way in Congress.
I would consider Howard University to be as important to the African American community as Georgetown is to Jesuits. It is the school that has to set the example for the others. The best way to do that is to better at what the school already does: leverage the alumni base and built a financial boat that will float to continue to allow the university to offer a respected education at a reasonable price.
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