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HBCUs Here and in South Africa — Common Missions, Common Challenges


I just returned from leading a study abroad program in South Africa, which focused on the country’s higher education system, history, and culture.  This was my fifth visit to the country and, just as in the past, I learned immensely from the experience. 

What is always most interesting about taking students to South Africa is watching them notice racism, inequity, and the lack of access for the country’s Black and “Coloured” students.  Many of my students, in particular those in the majority, are quick to point out these issues of inequality when they see them in another country, but have difficulty seeing them in the United States. I often wonder why.

During the study abroad we visited various institutions of higher education; among these were the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the University of Cape Town (UCT).  Upon arrival at UWC, a historically black institution under the apartheid government, my students immediately noticed the aging facilities, remote almost desolate location, dark hallways, and fiercely cold classrooms.  In comparison, UCT, a formerly English-speaking, White university was lush and built into the mountain side above the city.  The students could understand the existence of such stark inequities under the apartheid system – especially given UWC’s resistance stance against the apartheid regime, but wondered how inequality could remain under South Africa’s new democratic government.  Wouldn’t the new government, sometime during the last 14 years, have addressed the inequities between these two institutions?

What my students discovered was that higher education funding in South Africa is linked, in part, to graduation success.  Yes, public universities receive funding based on enrollment figures, but a good amount of funding is linked to graduation outcomes.  In theory, and especially in our accountability-driven nation, linking funding to graduation success may sound like an excellent idea.  However, UWC, like many of our nation’s HBCUs, has maintained a mission that is committed to serving low-income and underrepresented students (Blacks and “Coloureds” in South Africa).  Because these students often come from areas of dire poverty (no electricity, no running water, make-shift housing, and high unemployment), poor primary and secondary education, and are often first-generation students, they are less likely to graduate regardless of the efforts of UWC.  UCT, although making sincere attempts to serve underrepresented students, is less willing to take a risk during its admission processes.  Taking less of a risk on students equals greater graduation success and thus more funding. 

Just like their South African counterparts, public HBCUs in the United States have a history of being unequally funded.  Although some states are trying to rectify the inequities in funding Black colleges, others have yet to take on this challenge.  According to Michigan State University professor James T. Minor, “When comparing state funding, per student inequities become evermore apparent. For example, UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University [historically White institutions] receive approximately $15,700 in state funding per student. In comparison, students at North Carolina A & T and Fayetteville State University [both HBCUs] receive approximately $7,800 each in state appropriations.” 

The unique mission of UWC was crystal clear to my students; they understood why the institution had lower graduation rates and why it clung to its mission.  Of course, we see a similar situation here in the United States with our HBCUs.  Many Black colleges and universities serve underprepared, low-income African Americans, taking a chance on whether or not these students will graduate.  Although HBCUs are often criticized for their low graduation rates, what we fail to notice is the value added impact these institutions have.  Research shows that HBCUs overall graduate a disproportionate number of African American students compared to their historically White counterparts, and do so with far less funding.  Imagine the possiblities for the United States and South Africa in terms of providing equity for Black with equal funding of HBCUs!
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).

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