This blog post is the first in a series that takes a look at online education at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs).

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Research on the current state of online education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) boldly claim HBCUs lag behind their national counterparts in the proliferation of online education. As a result, proponents of equal access and quality instruction may be led to believe HBCUs are neglecting the needs of their unique student populations by “lagging” behind larger, more resourced institutions.

But on the contrary, closer examination of student success at HBCUs shows that they are indeed addressing the needs of their students by introducing online programs at a modest pace.

Of the 106 total public and private HBCUs in the U.S., only 33 currently offer online degree programs according to the 2014 edition of the Digital Learning Lab. An even closer look at these data show that only 24 HBCUs offer online bachelor’s degree programs and a mere three offer blended degree programs where some face-to-face courses may be required. This apparent lack of online and blended degree programs, however, might be more of a strategic maneuver by HBCUs to ensure student success.

Given that HBCUs enroll high numbers of students who are low-income, first-generation, part-time, and transfer students (populations nationally labeled as “disadvantaged”, “at-risk” or “underserved”), it is important to note the significant barriers that often delay or completely thwart this group’s progress towards graduation. An HBCU-Levers blog post on “Blended, Flipped, and Hybrid Courses at HBCUs” suggests that while online education provides students with the flexibility to maintain busy lifestyles without time or geographic constraints, students must meet several implicit prerequisites in order to fully enjoy the benefits of an online education. Unfortunately, underserved students that make up the majority of HBCU populations are typically less academically prepared for college-level course work and require significantly more academic and financial support than their peers causing many of these students to lack these prerequisites for successfully completing online programs.

In support of the notion that online instruction isn’t sufficient for the academic success of underserved student populations, it is important to consider student success at a top-ranked HBCU. Spelman College, a historically black college for women, currently boasts the highest six-year graduation rate among HBCUs and according to Dr. Desiree Pedescleaux, Spelman’s Dean of Undergraduate Studies, “‘Online’ isn’t a part of Spelman’s vocabulary, right now.”Spelman College doesn’t offer any online degree programs or online courses…and does not plan to offer any in the foreseeable future.

Spelman’s current enrollment is made up of over 50 percent first-generation students and over 50 percent Pell-eligible students, with an average family income of less than $40,000. Despite enrolling significant numbers of “at-risk” students, Spelman still manages to graduate 76 percent of its students due to competitive enrollment selectivity and implementation of best practices that have become defining features of Minority Serving Institutions. According to a report by The Institute of Higher Education Policy, these institutions effectively “challenge and support their students through culturally sensitive and relevant curricula and programs that address both students’ cognitive and psychosocial development.” Dr. Pedescleaux reiterated these elements, unique to the HBCU experience, in her interview with New America.

“Students come to Spelman for a reason: they want the contact with the instructors and they want the camaraderie that they develop with their sisters in the classroom,” said Dr. Pedescleaux when asked about the absence of online programs at Spelman. “You can’t be a part of that sisterhood if you have never stepped foot on campus, or sat in a seat in a classroom, or gone to sisters chapel to sing the hymn.”

To be clear, student success is not simply a function of whether or not online degree programs are offered at leading HBCUs such as Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Tuskegee University. These and other small private HBCUs typically have more selective enrollment criteria, produce more comprehensive academic support programs, and maintain higher retention rates.

In addition to private highly-selective HBCUs, a number of uncelebrated institutions are leading the pack of institutions enrolling and graduating predominantly underserved students. These institutions’ ability to exceed expectations for graduating underserved students with very few online programs further supports the notion that HBCUs shouldn’t rush to follow the crowd in implementing online education. Instead, they should be more strategic in ensuring that technology supports student success.

Take Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), a less selective public HBCU, for example. Following the lead of other top-ranked HBCUs, ECSU also does not offer any fully online degree programs. Instead, ECSU strategically uses independent online courses and technology-based student support services such as online tutoring and E-Mentoring to appropriately complement (rather than replace) invaluable face-to-face learning.  Because of online services like this and other student support services, the Washington Monthly’s annual college guide shows that ECSU exceeded its 26 percent predicted graduation rate (adjusted for factors such number of pell grant recipients and average SAT scores) and instead graduated 43 percent of its students.

In the midst of a digital era where technology-based initiatives are attracting the focus of policymakers, it may be true that HBCUs should continue to make modest strides towards the proliferation of online education. However, these strides should not be expedited at the expense of quality education for underserved students. Rather than quickly succumbing to the hype surrounding online education, HBCUs should instead become more intentional in their efforts to provide quality education–whether online, blended, or face-to-face– by investing more of their limited resources into programs and services that best address their student’s unique needs.