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Pride and Peril: Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Once a beacon of hope for thousands of Black students denied access to higher education by predominantly White institutions, historically Black colleges and universities have educated generations of Black scientists, doctors, lawyers, educators and social activists. But today, these institutions face serious challenges. Questions of relevance have reached a fever pitch as today‚Äôs Black colleges work to address declining enrollment, low graduation rates and financial instability. Despite the challenges, however, HBCUs for many Black students ‚Äď and others ‚Äď remain the last best hope of succeeding in the higher education arena. As the age-old debate for and against Black colleges rages on, Diverse has identified five threats facing HBCUs and five opportunities that could define their futures.


Prolonged Recession, Funding and Development Issues: When traditionally White institutions catch a cold, HBCUs catch pneumonia. Such is the case with the contagious economic virus that all of higher education is exposed to. HBCUs, like many others in the higher education sector, rely on student tuition dollars, government programs, corporate donations and foundation giving to sustain their institutions. All of these are unreliable revenue sources that point to the need for a stable income source typically found in a sustainable endowment.

The peril of weak endowments and low alumni giving is consequential in the  economic environment. HBCU endowment information is hard to come by. Just five schools responded to the National Association of College and University Business Officers Endowment Survey. For those that responded, the average endowment market value was $244.7 million, compared with an average of $521.9 million for all non-Black institutions. The proposed sale of portions of Fisk University‚Äôs prized art collection donated by Georgia O‚ÄôKeefe to raise much-needed cash and the proposal by the Georgia state Legislature to merge financially troubled Savannah State and Armstrong Atlantic State Universities to cut costs illustrate the financial volatility impacting many Black colleges.

Getting Them and Keeping Them: HBCUs provide a supportive environment where Black students thrive, but a 2006 Ed Sector report showed that just 37.9 percent of Black students attending HBCUs earn an undergraduate degree within six years, 4 percentage points lower than the national college graduation rate for Black students and 7 points lower than the overall graduation rates of predominantely White institutions. The graduation disparity could be a lot worse given the economic and educational disadvantages that often accompany these students, the vast majority of whom qualify for federal Pell Grants. But in a society that is becoming less tolerant of  excuses, HBCUs will have to undertake some creative means of addressing the retention  problem.


New Competition: For-profit institutions have become destination institutions for many Black and Hispanic students. A disproportionate percentage of degrees from proprietary colleges go to Black and Hispanic graduates. In this year‚Äôs Diverse Top 100, the University of Phoenix ‚Äúonline campus‚ÄĚ overtook Florida A&M and Howard universities as the No. 1 producer of bachelor‚Äôs degrees awarded to African-Americans. While Black students earned 8.9 percent of bachelor‚Äôs degrees in the United States in 2005, they accounted for 15 percent of the degrees conferred by proprietary institutions, according to data in the National Center for Education Statistics report, ‚ÄúPostsecondary Institutions in the United States.‚ÄĚ


Conservative Ethos/Constricting Campus Culture: Many news accounts have portrayed HBCUs as conservative, traditional institutions that are led by well-intentioned disciplinarians. While the accuracy of such accounts may be dubious, they raise warning points. The value of thoughtful reviews of HBCU campus climates and environments for faculty and students cannot be underestimated. Wholesome and welcoming environments at HBCUs were the stock of legends and huge selling points in attracting students and faculty. Today, many Black institutions continue to impose conservative policies that have long since lost their appeal, such as setting curfews, meddling in student media and limiting support for faculty research and expression.


Fear of Impending Doom: Black institutions on the brink of closure, such as Morris Brown, and those facing accreditation woes, such as Paul Quinn, continue to make headlines. As one account after another emerges, the fear of self-fulfilling prophecies usurps reality. But only a relatively small number of these schools have suffered irreparable damage. While some have had negative encounters with accreditation agencies, the vast majority have survived and often thrived. Unfortunately, these incidents can serve to erode enrollment and morale while also giving opponents ammunition to question HBCUs relevance in this so-called ‚Äėpost-racial‚Äô era.




Safe Place: At the 20th-anniversary luncheon of this publication in 2004, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole challenged a large gathering of Black educators to seriously consider how difficult it would be today to build a network of over 100 colleges dedicated to primarily educating African-American students. Everyone conceded that it would be nearly impossible. HBCUs provide refuge for Black students to define their place and identity in American society. Instead of being vehicles for diversity as ‚Äúunderrepresented minorities‚ÄĚ at majority schools, Black students are simply students at HBCUs. These schools serve as sources of pride and affirmation for thousands of alumni, friends and supporters from around the world. At a time when the threat of marginalization looms large in the psyche of many African-Americans, these schools are strategically positioned to become the focal point of the African-American community in many new and important ways. 

Decoders of Disparities: HBCUs have the propensity to lead higher education in disparity research. Research that documents racial and ethnic health disparities can play a key role in understanding and eliminating such disparities. The major funding organizations, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, have struggled for decades in trying to get at the root causes of racial disparities. A key player could and should be HBCUs. Take the qualified teacher disparity that is closely tied to the achievement gap: Even a cursory review of the statistics indicates that HBCUs are the nation’s premier institutions for graduating Black teachers. Yet these programs continue to be underfunded at the state and federal level.


Specialty Programs: HBCUs can be the pipeline for science, technology, engineering, mathematics and teacher education, considering they already do the bulk of the work. While composing about 3 percent of the nation‚Äôs 3,688 institutions of higher learning, the 103 HBCUs annually produce 23 percent of African-American bachelor‚Äôs degree and 13 percent of all master‚Äôs degree recipients, according to recent statistics. Spelman and Bennett colleges produce over half of the nation‚Äôs Black women who go on to earn doctorates in all science fields; Xavier University ranks No. 1 nationally in sending African-Americans to medical school. HBCUs that develop specialty programs can cement their place in the higher education arena by becoming the go-to institutions for in-demand talent.


Access: HBCUs can expand educational access and opportunity to underserved populations, particularly Hispanics. Additionally, HBCUs should tap into the market of students who start out at community colleges. HBCUs, which disproportionately serve students from low-income communities of color, can provide greater access to other underserved students in the Hispanic community. St. Philip‚Äôs College in San Antonio, founded in 1898 by the Episcopal Church as a sewing school for Black girls, has evolved into a comprehensive public community college with a for-credit enrollment exceeding 10,000. Hispanics make up the largest ethnic group on campus, and St. Philip‚Äôs, part of the Alamo Community Colleges District, is now the only college to be federally designated as both a historically Black college and a Hispanic-serving institution. The missions of Black colleges must evolve to serve a larger population of students.


Global Influence: HBCU students and faculty continue to carry the torch of academic excellence to other countries, building linkages throughout the African Diaspora and expanding the global impact of Black institutions. Florida A&M University President James Ammons signed an agreement with a Canadian organization that will allow FAMU students to intern in Cairo, Egypt. Howard University‚Äôs chapter of Engineers Without Borders served communities in Kenya and Brazil this year. Spelman students helped to build a library for the 10,000 Girls program in Senegal.


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