It’s no secret that Black, and other non-White, students in the U.S. have always faced an uphill struggle when it comes to education. Even today, the achievement gap between White students and their peers of color is wide—with the latest National Assessment for Educational Progress report.
What are now called Historically Black Colleges and Universities were at one time the only route many young scholars could take to obtain a college degree and elevate their lifestyles. This is not to say that these HBCUs were second-rate; the education received at these establishments has always rivaled that of institutions without the same label, producing such graduates as Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison and Spike Lee. Traditionally, HBCUs have also had a strong alumni presence, with the great minds of the graduates giving back to the institutions that taught them so much.
What was once a role built of necessity has slowly disappeared, however. The Civil Rights Movement, affirmative action initiatives and, more recently, the popularity and legitimacy of online degree programs have all chipped away at the core reason HBCUs were developed in the first place. Declining enrollment has unsurprisingly led to a domino effect, reducing the resources available to students on campus and making the HBCU experience less attractive to students choosing between a plethora of higher education options.
There are standouts, of course—HBCUs whose reputations have sustained them through the changing landscape of Black college education in the U.S. Atlanta liberal arts powerhouses Morehouse College, often referred to as the “Black Ivy League,” and Spelman College continue to attract the top talent in the country to their programs. Morehouse boasts an 83 percent freshman retention rate while Spelman is the largest producer of Black graduates that go on to medical school (of ALL U.S. colleges).
For every Spelman or Morehouse, however, there is a Saint Paul’s College, forced to close its doors in 2013 after an unsuccessful merger attempt and unsustainably low enrollment figures. Atlanta’s Morris Brown College filed for federal bankruptcy protection after finding itself $35 million over its head.
Not surprisingly, these headline-grabbing instances and others like them have called HBCUs to the table. Are these colleges still a necessity in the growingly accepting and diverse American culture? Do these colleges help their students reach graduation effectively? Why, when considering all the other educational options available to students of color, should an HBCU be chosen? Are these schools still relevant?
Despite the struggles of some HBCUs, I think that these institutions are actually more relevant than ever—and for a larger pool of students than ever before. Instead of closing the door on these schools or questioning their relevance, the educational community should be encouraging them to remain open, and for more reasons than one.
Safehavens for students of color
Though traditionally “White” schools now accept students of color, they often do not do enough to ensure that those students, particularly first-generation college attendees, have the resources to make it to graduation. With some exceptions, retention, mentoring and cultural programs often do not exist on non-HBCU campuses. Though subtle, racism still exists on non-HBCU campuses, too. HBCUs have always provided more than the curriculum in a textbook, or the expertise of the professor in the classroom. They have been safehavens for young adults, struggling with the demands of a college education and to rise above the insidious inferiority complex society places on them. HBCUs don’t just include students of color out of obligation; HBCUs encourage, strengthen and celebrate Black and other minority students. Even though “times have changed,” HBCUs still remain pillars of holistic creation of students who succeed not only academically, but in every aspect of their lives.
How HBCUs can stay relevant
For HBCUs to keep their doors open, and their educational offerings relevant in an increasingly competitive higher education market, they need to keep one foot grounded in tradition and the other pointing forward. By “tradition,” I do not mean that they need to hold on to the exact practices of the past or foolishly cling to a culture of exclusion, but I believe the purpose of HBCUs should remain steadfast: providing student-centered experiences with strong academic backgrounds.
While it is certainly impressive to make “top” lists in academic areas, HBCUs have a secret weapon when it comes to student retention, graduation rates and lifelong success and it lies outside what is in the textbooks. Can HBCUs survive without strong academic performance, and a competitive staff of the leading scholars in the nation and world? Of course not. But I’d argue that, even with those things, HBCUs cannot survive without remaining grounded in the student-focused, “under our wings” mentality that has always made them a different sort of college education—one that is fulfilling on many levels beyond what is printed on a transcript.
HBCUs should also continue to embrace a spirit of diversity, particularly outside its traditional student body demographic. Black students should not make up the entire student body—or even a majority of it. Students from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds should be welcomed in. The first-generation college students looking to elevate their family status. The student immigrants who are still assimilating into U.S. culture. The underdogs from every race, creed and color who need that extra bit of encouragement in a close-knit environment to accomplish their educational aspirations. It is this pool of students who have the highest potential to be innovators and to step outside their comfort zones to build a better future for themselves and our country. HBCUs can play that pivotal role in getting these students to that point.
So while the historical part of HBCUs should stay in the past, the future of these institutions of higher learning depends on leading through a diverse example that puts student needs above all else.