How Howard Became the Only HBCU on US News & World Report’s Top 100 List

When plaintiff Oliver Brown filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1951, after his daughter, Linda Brown, was denied entrance to Topeka’s all-white elementary schools, the attorneys who argued the successful case that would overturn the long-held illogical precedent in the United States that segregation could be equal, were graduates and faculty of Howard University School of Law.

The establishment of law and justice, along with how we as a republic appropriated the rights and privileges of our citizenry, would never be the same after their contribution. In fact, Thurgood Marshall, the group’s lead attorney, would eventually be appointed the Supreme Court’s first African-American jurist upon a wave of social change and disruption emanating from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a time itself where Howard’s role was no less evident.

And if these examples are not proof enough of Howard’s ability to challenge the status quo, the selection of Senator Kamala Harris, a Howard alumna, as the nation’s first African-American to be chosen as a Vice-Presidential candidate on a major party ticket, should certainly be convincing enough.

Over the course of its 153-year history, graduates, students and faculty from “The Mecca” have found themselves at the epicenter of the nation’s most disruptive moments of change. With such a track-record of revolutionary happenings to its credit, it’s not surprising that Howard, at No. 80, would crack the proverbial US News and World Report top 100 rankings list of National Universities, the only school ever to do so as an HBCU. The accomplishment is another credible example of the diversity of achievement abounding within American higher education. This is best understood when you recognize the factors used to select the rankings. Among the criteria are: 

  • Selectivity for the fall entering class, which while no longer considering acceptance rate, for National Universities it does evaluate the percentage of entrants from the top 10% of their class and average standardized test scores; 

  • Graduation and retention rates comparing sixth-year graduation and first to second-year retention; 

Collectively, these two factors and their differing percentage weights constitute close to one-third the scoring scale alone. A student body significantly comprised of undergraduates who consistently perform above average would greatly help any school realize a high score in these categories. That is not unlike Howard. With a more selective acceptance rate of 36%, almost a third of freshmen entering in Fall 2019 ranked in the top 10% of their high school graduating class, and over 85% of Fall 2018 freshmen were retained to sophomore year.

Howard also enjoys a four-year graduation rate of 52%. Now, if you color this against the backdrop of social economics, the significance of Howard’s ranking begins to truly shine forth. 

Top 100 national universities with a relatively high enrollment from affluent families are most assured to score well, as households with such resources allow for better preparation for standardized testing and require less financial aid making more money available for schools to spend on other priorities like faculty resources, also included in the ranking criteria. The economics of Howard’s undergraduate population operate differently, however. Instead of spending more money on students who do not need it, the university is committed to spending the most it can on the educational attainment of those who do. 

Although Howard has enrollees from affluent families, over 80% of students at Howard receive some form of financial assistance to complete their degree. Forty-five percent were Pell Grant recipients during the 2018-2019 academic year. In 2020, families with an adjusted gross income of $26,000 annually could qualify for the full federal Pell Grant payment of $6,195, with a maximum income not to exceed $60,000 to receive some lesser level of the award. For those facing a steep hurdle to cover college expenses, such financial support can truly be helpful. 

Beginning in 1972, the Pell Grant was legislated, in part, to increase access for low to moderate-income students, but it has not come without a hefty price-tag to the American taxpayer, costing approximately $30 billion each year. At such an expense, accountability should be expected. Schools whose bottom lines benefit from the Pell funding their students receive are responsible for fostering an environment that best ensures obtaining a degree is not only possible but most often occurs for this vulnerable group.

A May 2018 report released by Third Way, a national think-tank, described “High-Performing Pell Serving Institutions” as four-year institutions whose Pell recipients represented 32% of first-time full-time enrollees for Fall 2017 based on data reported to the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and graduates at least 50% of its Pell population in six-years. With this standard in mind, Howard’s most recent performance demonstrates a 54% four-year graduation rate of first-time full-time Pell recipients from Fall 2016, an entering class where Pell was awarded to over 45 %.

Needless-to-say, Howard is proud of its return on American investment.  

The remarkable success is largely due to the visionary leadership of President Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., MBA. Under his tenure, several new programs were implemented to increase each student’s ability to stay on track to graduation. Students are encouraged to graduate early and on time with tuition rebate programs. Additional supports include improvements in retention-based technology and the installation of an Office of Undergraduate Studies, primarily focused on advising, providing tutoring services, and enhancing the student academic experience.

As a result of this progress, Howard was also mentioned in this year’s US News rankings as No. 11 among Top Performers on Social Mobility (No. 3 among private schools). This means few schools are better at providing a pathway to a fuller, more rewarding future for low-income students. 

Social Mobility as a critical component of a school’s performance was highlighted when Senator Harris and five other Senate colleagues brought, in the tireless words of former US Representative and Civil Rights icon, John Lewis, “good trouble,” to the doorsteps of US News in December 2018. The group lobbed a bomb of disruption into the methodology of how it determined its rankings by proposing that along with recognizing graduation rates of Pell recipients, schools should also be measured on the percentage of Pell recipients enrolled. The move gave the matter of access for disadvantaged students more prominent footing in the national discourse.  

Howard’s inclusion in the top 100 national universities ranking proves that when given the appropriate conditions, campuses that serve primarily underrepresented people can produce outcomes worthy of uppermost recognition. HBCUs have demonstrated their potential since the first was founded in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, in 1837. Solely responsible for establishing the Black middle-class, these American treasures have educated most African American professionals.

According to The Network Journal, currently, HBCU graduates constitute 40% of Black members of Congress, 12.5% of Black CEOs, 40% of Black engineers, 50% of Black professors at non-HBCUs, 50% of Black lawyers, and 80% of Black judges. It can be sufficiently said, the function of HBCUs has been key in helping to close the gap in wealth disparities between whites and blacks in the United States. 

Today, HBCUs makeup only three percent of the country’s colleges and universities, but enroll 10% of all African American students, and despite the fact that 52% of total HBCU enrollees are the first in their family to attend college, they produce almost 20% of all African American graduates. At Howard, not only are we the leading producer of African American students entering medical schools in the United States, but the National Science Foundation cites Howard University as the top producer of African American undergraduates who later earn PhDs in the natural sciences.

The School of Business earned the No. 1 spot by Princeton Review as the “greatest opportunity for minority students,” and along with the School of Law who ranked as the No. 2 law degree producer for African Americans, Diverse Issues in Higher Education also ranked Howard the No. 1 producer of African Americans earning degrees in communications and journalism. 

As helpful as the US News and World Report rankings can be to making sense of what can be a complex decision on where to spend the next four years after high school, I realize there is inherent danger in these rankings becoming myopic, as Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) consistently dominate the upper quartiles. Yet, as James Baldwin once said, “We are not obliged to accept the world’s definitions.” This is why Howard’s historical role of instituting disruptive movements has always been to shatter social conventions to expand opportunities afforded to all individuals.

So as we play that role once again as the only HBCU to be ranked in the top 100, I’m particularly thankful that our inclusion expands the diversity of options for families wanting to make a thorough and well-informed decision about how to effectively spend their time and money.

Anthony E. Jones, M.Ed., is the Associate Provost/Assistant Vice-President of Enrollment Management at Howard University.