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Promoting HBCUs

Black colleges provide a superior education; they just need to toot their horns a little louder.


Asession presented at a national higher education conference discussed the implications of internalized racism in Blacks. According to the presenter, this sense of self-loathing serves as a factor in preventing Blacks from attending historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) because they perceive those institutions to be inferior and less prestigious than White colleges. This is not the first time that I encountered this issue of Blacks’ forgoing HBCUs because of concerns about the educational quality of these institutions.

In 2005, T. Elon Dancy II expressed a similar sentiment in an essay, “Madness or Elitism? African Americans Who Reject HBCUs.” This article was based on a qualitative research study and published in what was then Black Issues In Higher Education. Although Dancy did not link Black students’ unwillingness to attend HBCUs to internalized racism, he suggested that participants preferred White colleges to Black institutions because they were perceived as more elite.

While I wanted to attend a Black college for my undergraduate degree, my mother persuaded me to attend a traditionally White institution because she felt that I would get a superior education. After attending two TWIs for my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I decided to pursue my Ph.D. at a research-intensive HBCU. As a result, I was able to strengthen my appreciation for these institutions and learn firsthand of their unique ability to produce academically talented leaders and social change agents.

Though some of the Black future doctors, lawyers and engineers I was exposed to scored below average on their college admissions exams, they demonstrated an unwavering desire to achieve academic excellence. Upon graduation, most of these students possessed the academic skills to perform extraordinarily well at some of the country’s best universities. To this end, the value added on student learning is indisputable. Undoubtedly, HBCU faculty and many administrators supported students in their efforts by being accessible, caring, supportive, as well as serving as role models and mentors.

HBCU experts and officials have consistently noted the positive impact that Black colleges have on Black students. Though only 3 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities are classified as HBCUs, they enroll 16 percent of Blacks at the undergraduate level. They also award nearly 30 percent of all baccalaureate degrees and 20 percent of all first professional degrees to Blacks. Moreover, according to a recent assessment of Black colleges led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Marybeth Gasman, of the top 10 colleges that graduate Blacks who go on to earn Ph.D.s or medical degrees, nine are HBCUs; in addition, eight out of the top 10 producers of Black graduates in mathematics and statistics are HBCUs. The top 12 producers of Black graduates in the physical sciences are all Black colleges, including Xavier University of Louisiana, which is ranked No. 1.

Other HBCU scholars have noted that Blacks have more fruitful experiences attending Black colleges than White colleges. Not only do they have more enjoyable interactions with faculty in and out of the classroom, they also are more engaged in out-of-the classroom activities and have better grade point averages than Blacks at predominantly White colleges. Furthermore, the HBCU experience has helped enhance students’ affinity for educational success by providing tangible role models that students can relate to, and minority faculty, who share some commonalities with students.

These are laudable accomplishments and certainly illustrate the efficacy for Black colleges to provide Black students with a quality education that parallels or supersedes the educational quality offered to Black students at TWIs. While Black colleges may not be able to do much about the underlying factors responsible for the seeds of internalized racism, they can calm the negative perceptions some have about their institutions. HBCUs should work collectively with each other to aggressively advertise their effectiveness in providing students with a stellar education and their unique ability to nurture students’ academic talents. They should place great emphasis on communicating with Black students in the early stages of high school or perhaps late stages of middle school to inform them of the supportive and nurturing social and educational climate afforded to them by attending Black institutions.

They also should use creative and innovative approaches to communicate their accomplishments, which transcend scholarly journals and books, in order to reach a broader spectrum of the population that may not be aware of the unique function of Black colleges. Similarly to White colleges, Black colleges are not perfect, and they certainly have room to improve. But these institutions are highly effective in providing access to higher education to students of color. They successfully equip them with a top-notch education that prepares them to succeed in their professional endeavors.

— Dr. Robert T. Palmer is senior institutional nresearcher at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

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