Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have grappled for decades with state and federal underfunding while educating many low-income students of color. But the pandemic has disproportionately hit the very communities they often serve.
To experts and HBCU leaders, a new survey’s findings highlight the need for more support to students as well as institutions to help them. In its latest report, The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization at Temple University, found that two-thirds of HBCU students in Fall 2020 had experienced basic needs insecurity.
With a 8.3% response rate, about 5,000 students at 14 public and private HBCUs participated in the survey. Nearly one-fifth of students reported they had been homeless in the past year. About 46% of respondents said they had experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days.
“These numbers speak to something far greater than an HBCU problem or an African-American problem,” wrote Dr. Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, a private HBCU in Texas, in response to the survey’s findings. “These numbers speak to an American problem. One which, if allowed to go unchecked, will compromise the future of too many talented citizens.”
Dr. Krystal Williams, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Louise McBee Institute of Higher Education, agreed with the urgency.
“I think this speaks to the need for continued support for students from under-resourced communities, a demographic that HBCUs disproportionately serve,” said Williams, who added that such support for students depends as well on supporting the institutions in that work. “It also points to the need to rethink different approaches to addressing the unique needs of that demographic, especially in an environment where COVID-19 looks like it will be with us for awhile.”
In response to its findings, The Hope Center partnered with the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University (VUU) to launch an initiative called #RealCollegeHBCU that aims to build capacity at 10 HBCUs, including six historically Black community colleges. Over the next six months, each college will get training in strategies to help ensure students’ basic needs are being met.
“This collaborative partnership between our Centers is a way to take a united stance against inequity, to build institutional capacity at HBCUs, and to move the needle through specific sets of actions,” wrote Dr. Terrell L. Strayhorn in an email to Diverse. Strayhorn is the provost, senior vice president of academic affairs, and director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs at VUU. “Right now is the right time to do this good work.”
As part of the initiative’s training, HBCUs will review The Hope Center survey’s findings and discuss what student support policies are already in place on their campuses — as well as what other institutional partners are doing.
“Some HBCUs in the cohort might have food pantries set up already, for instance, and others might not,” said Dr. Atif Qarni, managing director of external affairs at The Hope Center. “So, we see the training as trying to meet each institution where it is, to grow and initiate new programs.”
Another goal is to support the participating HBCUs in advocating for policy items at the state and federal level. In September 2022 during the White House Initiative on HBCUs’ annual national conference, the 10 institutions could push key points forward, from financial aid to emergency student aid, added Qarni.
“We’re also working backwards from that September timeframe to tee up policy advocacy work with this cohort,” he said. “We suspect a lot will come out of this.”
Institutions in the #RealCollegeHBCU project’s inaugural cohort include Paul Quinn College as well as Delaware State University (DSU), a public land-grant HBCU.
Like many institutions, DSU raised emergency funds for students facing housing and food insecurities when the coronavirus first hit the country in Spring 2020. Carlos Holmes, director of news services at DSU, said that staying attentive to students’ holistic needs has been critical throughout the pandemic — and will continue to be so.
“An important lesson to be learned from this is to be cognizant of your students’ needs, even when you’re in the midst of a pandemic,” said Holmes. “It’s about a lot more than just making sure they’re taking their classes.”
Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected]