The evolving HBCU niche – historically Black colleges and universities

In recent years, much has been written about the challenges
confronting American higher education. There is a growing interest in
applying standards of accountability, and many states have reduced
financial support, as colleges and universities find themselves
competing with prisons and health care for the public treasury. On a
variety of fronts, the nation’s colleges and universities are
re-examining themselves and their value to society.

Only scant attention has been paid, however, to the country’s
historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the changes
they are undergoing.

To a degree, America’s HBCUs are dealing with the same generic
issues affecting higher education – increasing costs, legislative
oversight, accreditation pressures, part-time faculty, et cetera. But
due to their unique history and mission, there are other challenges as
well. Many of these may be legitimately viewed as opportunities, as
they portend important new vistas for a sector in the higher education
marketplace that has not always been understood or valued.

Institutions which are able to successfully carve a niche for
themselves as outstanding undergraduate colleges or comprehensive
universities are likely to succeed in recruiting and retaining the best
students, faculty, and administrators. It now appears that for some,
HBCUs may be on the path toward becoming institutions of preferred
choice for students and faculty.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1994
there were 103 HBCUs – forty public, four-year colleges; ten public,
two-year colleges; forty-nine private, four-year colleges, and four
private, two-year colleges. These institutions constitute a minuscule 3
percent of this country’s 3,688 institutions of higher education.
Nonetheless, they enroll 16 percent of African American students and
produce one-third of all Black college graduates.

It is at the four-year colleges and universities, both public and
private, where the most ambitious and far-reaching changes are
occurring. While HBCUs have by and large retained their historic role
and mission, federal desegregation efforts and demographic changes have
had discernible effects upon many of them. Many Black alumni and
legislators have been concerned about the possibility that certain
HBCUs, especially public ones, might lose their identity due to
desegregation. In point of fact, this fear has been largely unfounded,
with some exceptions, including Bluefield State College (see Black
Issues, Dec. 11, 1997), West Virginia State College, and Lincoln
University in Missouri.

Many HBCUs have embarked on interesting courses of action which have
enabled them to meet the needs of an expanding and diverse market while
retaining their identity, as evidenced by Time Magazine’s selection of
Florida A&M University as the College of the Year. However,
notwithstanding Florida A&M’s accolades and the emergence of other
HBCUs as institutions of choice, it would be folly to assume that these
institutions coexist with White institutions in a risk-free environment.

Public HBCUs in particular are often under fire from state
legislatures which do not always appreciate their value to citizens or
the economy. Many find themselves juxtaposed between traditionally
White institutions (TWIs) and community colleges when it comes to
funding. In fact, community colleges have created niche markets in
states where their role vis-a-vis economic development is unquestioned.
As public support for higher education declines, it is not hard to
imagine that HBCUs may not fare as well as their White counterparts in
securing fiscal support in the future.

Many of today’s Black students graduated from high schools where
they may have had only a few, if any, African American teachers and
limited exposure to African American history and culture. Many of them
are seeking an experience of an environment which does not carry the
stigma of being in a minority. While an African American studies
program at a TWI may provide a positive academic experience, enrollment
at an HBCU is more likely to afford a positive well-rounded experience.

HBCUs are better equipped to provide extra-curricular and
co-curricular experiences which many Black students and their parents
are likely to view as value-added. As researcher Jacqueline Fleming,
author of the 1984 study Blacks in College, points out, the environment
on a Black campus tends to be more effective because of the
encouragement, support, and nurturing – especially of Black men – that
occurs there.

As the country drifts towards conservatism, higher education has
moved from Bakke to Hopwood and Proposition 209 in the course of a
twenty-five-year span. We are already seeing a decline in the number of
Blacks admitted to entering classes at law schools and professional
schools. This decline could have implications for undergraduate
institutions as well.

Evidence of the impact of Hopwood and Proposition 209 is provided by
an April 1997 article in the New York University Law Review. According
to data from the Law School Admissions Council, the acceptance rates of
Blacks and other minorities dropped significantly when race was no
longer a factor in admission decisions.

A generation ago, young Blacks were more willing to be “the first”
and bear any burden or pay any price in order to gain admission to
higher education institutions. Many of today’s Black youth are just as
likely to forgo the hassle of being where they are not wanted. For
example, of the fourteen Black students admitted to the University of
California’s law school, none will enroll this fall. That class of 270
will have one African American, who was accepted last year but deferred

If African Americans simply enroll where they are welcomed and
warmly accepted, it is conceivable that many of them will turn to Black
law schools. Among the major changes taking place at HBCUs is a renewed
leadership which focuses on quality while meeting the needs of African
American students who do not always “measure up” according to
standardized test scores. Outstanding educators are propelling these
institutions to the forefront of American higher education.

As an article in The Washington Post points out, the formula for
success at many HBCUs is simple: “Rather than adopting a sink or swim
attitude towards incoming students, the approach leans more toward
nurture and assist. And if a student is not doing well, the schools
make it their mission to blaze a path to success.”

Given the impending demographic changes in our society and the track
record of HBCUs – “doing more with less,” as Howard University
President Dr. H. Patrick Swygert describes it – the nation’s Black
colleges and universities are poised to exert even greater leadership
and influence in the future. Our success as a nation of increasing
minorities in a shrinking global village may well depend upon that

Dr. Alvin J. Schexnider Chancellor Winston-Salem State University

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