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Are HBCUs Ready for an Increase in Enrollment?

Imagine yourself as a Black student on a predominately White campus. Now imagine yourself walking to class, passing the Black Cultural Center, and you see little white specs scattered all over the lawn and walkways. At first, you aren’t sure what it is, but as you get closer, you see that the little white specs are cotton balls. Again, imagine yourself as a Black student, on a predominately White campus, waking up to a noose and bananas hanging from your door in your residence hall. How do you respond? How do you feel? How does your experience at your institution shift as a result of these traumatic incidences? Unfortunately, these occurrences are not simply imaginations nor were they isolated events. These were the traumatic reality for Black students on predominantly White campuses in 2010 and in 2017.

Dr. Janelle WilliamsDr. Janelle Williams

Since 2016, about 40 of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the nation saw an increase in applications and enrollments including Grambling State University, Dillard University, Howard University, and Shaw University. HBCU President Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough credits the “Missouri Effect”—the surge in race-based harassment of Black students at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) for the enrollment resurgence.  This theory was explored by the 2019 study A Response to Racism: How HBCU Enrollment Grew in the Face of Hatred.

On May 25, 2020 George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a White police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Floyd’s death sparked a national outcry that we believe to be the second wave of the Black Lives Matter Movement, which formally began in 2013. The Floyd Effect — the public display of allyship to Black Lives, anti-racism, and the disruption of systemic racism — can be the second coming of the Missouri Effect for higher education. The Floyd Effect has been played out in the media and social media for all to see, especially Black families and communities. If the 2019 study, A Response to Racism, is predictive of a pattern, there is a likely chance that enrollment at HBCUs will continue to increase in 2020-2024 due in part to the current racial epidemic in the United States. As we contemplate this increase in HBCU enrollment, we are motivated to ask are HBCUs ready for such an increase in enrollment and applications?

In an effort to assist in preparing HBCUs for the impending enrollment resurgence, we offer three ways to help HBCU administrators, and student affairs practitioners, in particular, prepare for an enrollment increase:

Mental Health. The incoming class of Fall 2020 is living through trauma caused by a global health pandemic and a racial epidemic, while navigating their introduction to college, coupled with their own life challenges which could include homelessness and food insecurity. HBCU administrators cannot allow mental health to only be a performative discussion or reactive topic to situations as they arise. HBCU administrators have to lead the charge with the purpose to educate faculty and staff and provide the most effective and appropriate services to all students regarding their mental health. We urge HBCUs to seek out and employ counselors who are diverse in their experiences, familiar with supporting individuals with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and comfortable working with college-aged and LGBTQ+ communities. We also recommend mental health advocates for staff and faculty. Students at HBCUs, more specifically Black students, are coming to campus (in person or online) with many different emotions and adverse life experiences that may have a negative impact on their success and overall college experience. Thus, as enrollment increases, HBCUs must address mental health care for students. More students will result in more issues to navigate.

Dr. Kellie DixonDr. Kellie Dixon

Staffing/Hiring Practices. As student enrollment increases, there should be an equal and adequate increase in staff to support student needs and the university’s mission. In addition, HBCU administrators should ensure that new hires understand the mission and culture of HBCUs. For example, according to the report, “Moving Upward and Onward: Income Mobility at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” 71 % of HBCU students are Pell Grant eligible. This means students are likely to come from low-income households. HBCUs also serve large numbers of first-generation students. These two areas alone suggest that faculty and staff should receive training on how to support the needs associated with these populations. In student affairs, the CAS Standards are a great resource to assess and ensure that functional units have qualified staff, as well as adequate staffing to support the number of students enrolled. HBCUs must also consider how they are developing existing staff to ensure they are continuously improving services for a growing population. Evaluating how leaders are fostering staff development is essential for institutions that have limited capacity to hire new staff; using what already exists can be incredibly beneficial to improving the overall campus support and meeting the needs of students.

Equity-Minded Assessment. HBCUs need to demonstrate the effectiveness of student support services. It is critical to have a framework that incorporates equity-minded assessment. It is not enough for HBCUs to say “we have programs and services,” they need to demonstrate what the programs do and how effective the services are. The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) began the conversation around equity in 2017 with the release of Occasional Paper 29 titled, Equity and Assessment: Moving Towards Culturally Responsive Assessment. Staff and faculty should be equity-oriented in their work. Scholars Lindsay Malcom-Piqueux and Estella Bensimon offer five principles of equity-mindedness to facilitate this including: race conscious, systematically aware, institutionally focused, evidenced-based, and advancing equity. A culture of assessment is warranted to ensure HBCUs are providing students what they need to succeed as the institutions grow.

“The shrewd one sees the danger and conceals himself, but the inexperienced keep right on going and suffer the consequences,” states a wise proverb. This proverb is the perfect call to action for HBCU administrators. Now is the time for HBCUs to be shrewd and prepare for imminent enrollment increases. Doing so will provide lasting benefits not only for the institutions but also the students they serve. Not preparing, could leave HBCUs lagging behind their peer institutions and declines in applications and enrollments. What are you doing to get ready?

Dr. Janelle L. Williams is an associate dean at Widener University and a visiting scholar at the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. You can follow her on Twitter @SincerelyDrJae

Dr. Kellie Dixon is the director of student affairs assessment and staff development at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, as well as an adjunct instructor at Appalachian State University. You can follow her on Twitter @misskellie_1

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