HBCU Construction: Revisiting Work Study & Trade Training

By William A. Foster, IV

Labor is the great producer of wealth; it moves all other causes. – Daniel Webster

We’ve all heard the stories as HBCU alum of the former slaves who initially upon attending their HBCU were involved in not only taking classes but also in the actual building of the HBCU. Their expertise as former blacksmiths and farmers on slave plantations allowed them to have a needed expertise to help build the initial buildings on our campuses. For these institutions and African America as a whole who were just getting its “start” in the 1870s and now charged with trying to close at that time a 300 year social, economic, and political gap there was significant benefit socially and economically in having students who could provide the initial labor to build the school. It created both pride in their new institution and a fiscal savings as these students typically not only provided the labor but in some instances made the bricks. One had to assume this was an amazing time to be a student. To see the birth of your own institution coming from your hands into buildings that would become the birthplace of African minds generations to come.

Today, the scene is much different. On almost every HBCU campus I’ve visited and even a few I’ve worked, the construction of new buildings is outsourced. Not only is it outsourced its virtually never outsourced to an African American construction company. The financing also almost never comes from an African Diaspora owned financial institution which why the establishment of the HBCU Credit Union is so vital.  Both of these points highlight a problem when it comes to circulation of our economic capital. Too often we forget about the business to business circulation and only seem to be focused on the consumer to business circulation. Now, certainly today’s student is different than that of our ancestors over 100 plus years ago in terms of upbringing and training. However, we have seen the over reliance on the DuBois model and not enough balance with the Washington model leaving us extremely vulnerable in down economies. That is to say our students should be flexible enough that they graduate with not only a degree of their mind but the ability to perform a trade with their hands. This balance can provide both a hedge in a down economy when white collar jobs get the brunt of the slashing or it can be additional income that one earns on the side. It can also be the impetus that spurs entrepreneurship into areas we are sorely under represented like construction.

The rising cost of education requires our schools become more creative on how work study is provided to our students. An average construction worker makes $29,211 annually which isn’t much for someone trying to support a family but it is the equivalent of four years worth of undergraduate Stafford Loans. Now imagine a student for four years earning $12,000 a year for four years working construction projects or other various infrastructure projects the university is engaged in. You’ve just created a $48,000 package in financial aid to start. Now at the end of the four years you have a student with no debt, potentially some savings, trained with a trade, armed with a degree, and a student with an even deeper social connection to the care of their university because it was the sweat from their brow that built it.

I do not want to suggest that we go on a building spree or that you don’t still need professional construction workers. I am suggesting that we need to use African American construction companies to increase our business to business circulation and require those companies hire some of our students. They themselves would provide the training to our students in conjunction with having lower cost labor for the project. It both saves the cost of the project to the school and increases the profits to the company. This is just the start of what needs to be part of a comprehensive plan to find more creative ways to decrease our students’ student loan burden and given HBCUs serious infrastructure needs this is a win-win for both student and HBCU as we expand and try to build up our endowments.

Asian American and European America both have a median net worth north of $95,000. African America’s median net worth is $2,170. The student loan debt burden is going to hurt us more than any in the generations to come if we do not get serious about finding ways to counter it. We cannot simply copy the “playbook” of our counterparts who have almost 50 times our wealth.

We have a chance to allow our students to add to the history of building ourselves up with our own two hands and mind. It’s a lesson from the past we desperately need to revisit.

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