Historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, have provided a top-notch education for African-Americans since pre-Civil War days. These schools, founded prior to 1964 with the goal of serving Black students, once provided windows to educational pursuits when other doors were slammed shut to African-Americans. With diversity at all American colleges and universities on the rise, and the emergence of flexible online programs, where do HBCUs fit in the contemporary higher education picture?
A Powerful Educational Presence
According to ThinkHBCU.org, 70 percent of the nation’s African American physicians and dentists earned their degrees at HBCUs. More than 50 percent of public school teachers of African-American descent earned their degrees at HBCUs. African-Americans with communication technology degrees from HBCUs make up 44 percent of the nation’s total, and 43 percent of mathematics degrees awarded to African-Americans come from HBCUs. The range of industries addressed in the offerings of HBCUs is vast, contributing to a larger and more integral African-American presence in the workforce.
Women gain an especially strong advantage when they earn a degree from an HBCU. The United Negro College Fund has reported that females who graduate from Bennett and Spelman colleges make up more than half of the African-American women who eventually earn science doctorates. To put that in perspective, that number is higher than the amount produced by all seven Ivy League sister schools put together. In a workplace when minorities often still struggle to reach the highest ranks, African-American women hold a strong advantage with a degree from an HBCU.
When HBCUs first began popping up in America, they were a necessity to higher educational paths for African-American young people. Benefactors like John Rockefeller founded Spelman College in Atlanta (named after his wife, by the way) in order to give Black students a shot in a nation still very much in the throes of Jim Crowe-law domination. Most of the 105 HBCUs were founded in former slave areas that still presented steep challenges for African-Americans that aspired to higher education but faced discrimination in dominantly White college settings.
The original intent of HBCUs worked. Some of the nation’s brightest and most influential minds came out of HBCUs. Langston Hughes was a Lincoln University graduate. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his degree from Morehouse College. Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, education expert Marva Collins and Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons all earned degrees from HBCUs (from Tennessee State University, Clark Atlanta University and Dillard University, respectively). These powerful pillars of the African-American community were able to achieve optimal success in life because of the education they received from HBCUs.
What about now? With White students quickly becoming one small aspect of non-HBCU settings, do ambitious African-American students really need an HBCU to achieve success? Perhaps a more poignant question is this: does it help or hinder the African-American community when its members attend an HBCU today? I think the answer is grounded in the particular student’s intent. Young African-Americans today do not NEED an HBCU to obtain a general education, but they may find that particular programs at individual schools meet their career objectives. Some may even find academic inspiration in the original founding purpose of an HBCU and that feeling of carrying on tradition may fuel them to graduate, make an impact in the world and give back to their college or university.
The Future of HBCUs
The original purpose of HBCUs is no longer the only reason but that does not mean that these institutions lack other attractive qualities. In fact, many students with White European, Latino or Asian roots are choosing HBCUs because of the strength of the academic programs and generally lower tuition costs. During the 2011–2012 school year, West Virginia State, Kentucky State and Delaware State universities all reported that more than 25 percent of their populations were made up of White Americans. A continued push for diversity on HBCU campuses is the only way these schools can transition from the necessity of the past to the potential of the future. This means implementing more online course options and flexible degree programs so that all students can picture themselves succeeding at an HBCU. Gratitude for the original intent of HBCUs combined with forward educational thinking for students of all heritages will carry HBCUs to the next level of achievement in higher learning circles.