Two university economists chart the advantages of historically black colleges and universities

BLACKSBURG, Va., July 20, 2007 – Two Virginia Tech researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have completed an innovative study on the economic impact of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Their findings show that black men have higher lifetime earnings from attending HBCUs than other four-year colleges and universities.

Bradford Mills, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Elton Mykerezi, a recent graduate of the same department and an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, describe the economic importance of HBCUs in their paper, “The Wage Earnings Impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” which will be published in a forthcoming issue of Southern Economic Journal.

“We used existing data from the National Longitudinal Surveys, a set of surveys that gathered information at multiple points in time on the financial and life situation of men and women from 1979 to 2004,” Mills said. “Our study, which is an analysis of this data, shows that black males have no initial advantage from HBCU attendance but that their wages increase 1.4 percent to 1.6 percent faster per year after attending HBCUs as compared to black males who attended other colleges and universities.”

According to the study, this faster growth generates discounted career earnings for black men that are 9.6 percent higher for HBCU attendees and 8.9 percent higher for the average four-year black college attendee. The analysis does not find a correlation between HBCU attendance and initial earnings or subsequent wage growth for black women.

“The bottom line is that HBCUs try to fix the wage gap between black students and white students, and there is less to fix for women,” Mykerezi said. “Previous research shows that black men face greater wage disparities in labor markets relative to whites than do black women. The bigger issue for women is how gender affects their wages and lifetime earnings.”

The study examines the impact of HBCU attendance on the initial post-college wage, the most recent wage observation, and the average annual growth rate of wages. This allows Mills and Mykerezi to measure labor market success by the age-earnings profiles of individuals over time and provides more complete information than a study that only accounted for wages at a single point in time.

Previous studies on this topic have given seemingly conflicting answers to the same question. A 1994 study reports a zero to 12 percent wage loss for HBCU attendees relative to their counterparts who attended other four-year colleges and universities. But a 1995 paper finds that HBCU attendees have wages that are 38 percent higher than black college students at other institutions. A 1998 paper by the same researcher finds that black men who attend HBCUs have 7 percent higher wages than their counterparts at other four-year colleges and universities and that wages would be 25 percent higher for the general college student population of black men if they had all attended HBCUs.

“We agree with studies from both researchers, but we reconcile the differences by showing how the benefits of HBCU attendance accrue over time, with the greatest rewards in later years,” Mills said.

The original HBCU mandate to provide affordable postsecondary education for African Americans has been the object of considerable debate since 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation in public education with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling. Some legal scholars have also interpreted the court’s 1992 ruling in United States v. Fordice to suggest that HBCUs must identify benefits beyond delivering a low-cost educational alternative for historically underrepresented groups in order to continue state and federal support as racially distinct institutions.

Nationally ranked among the top research institutions of its kind, Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences focuses on the science and business of living systems through learning, discovery, and engagement. The college’s comprehensive curriculum gives more than 2,200 students in a dozen academic departments a balanced education that ranges from food and fiber production to economics to human health. Students learn from the world’s leading agricultural scientists, who bring the latest science and technology into the classroom.