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Why are HBCUs the Only Institutions Included In the Discourse about Tuition-Free Community College?

As scholars committed to making a critical difference with our research that extends beyond publishing in peer reviewed journal articles, we love when journalists solicit our perspectives on topics that we have dedicated our careers to researching. This enthusiasm was in full force when, on two separate occasions,  a journalist contacted the first author to inquire about how President Biden’s plan for tuition-free community college, stemming from his 3.5 trillion reconciliation package, might impact student enrollment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). After a series of conversations with journalists about this topic, the first author contacted the second author to indicate that he was concerned that HBCUs were being conflated with community colleges. This sparked a lengthy conversation about the need to write about why it is problematic to lump HBCUs and community colleges together. When the question is asked about how creating opportunities of access at community colleges might disadvantage HBCUs specifically, this is exactly what is happening, consciously or unconsciously, HBCUs are being grouped with community colleges. Granted, like community colleges, some HBCUs enroll students who are academically underprepared and are mission oriented to meet students where they are academically. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that HBCUs are not a monolith, much like spectrum of diverse institutions inclusive of Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), with different missions and institutional selectivity. Some HBCUs such as Morehouse College, Howard University, and Spelman College, among others, are highly selective and others have relaxed admission standards.Dr. Larry J. WalkerDr. Larry J. Walker

Moreover, there are range of institutions that have relaxed admission standards. For example, many Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), such as Hispanic Serving Institutions, Predominantly Black Institutions, and Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions not only function as community colleges, but a number of four-year MSIs have nonselective admission standards. Because the mission of many of these institutions are guided by tenets of social justice and racial uplift, they are intentional about maintaining nonselective admission criteria to promote access to postsecondary education for racially minorized students. Given the diverse landscape of higher education, we are certain that a gamut of PWIs function as open access institutions.  However, it is interesting to note that when conversations are held about tuition-free community colleges, discussion abound about how this might affect HBCUs, without considering how this will impact some of the institutional types mentioned, particularly other MSIs since they disproportionately enroll a large share of racially minoritized students.

Largely, however, colleges in general should be concerned about how a plan for tuition-free community college might hamper student enrollment. For example, some research has noted that student enrollment is down at community colleges due to uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, other research has indicated that some students who were attending four-year institutions before the pandemic took classes online at their local community college because it enabled them to save money during the pandemic. This research has revealed that some students have pledged to continue their education at community college online if their four-year institution did not resume in person learning.  Given that community colleges are more affordable, more students may be inclined to attend community colleges for their first two years of college before transferring to a four-year institution to save money if community colleges were free.  Consequently, a plan for tuition-free community college may pose a threat to the student enrollment for institutions of higher education in general and not one specific institutional type. Dr. Robert T. PalmerDr. Robert T. Palmer

Moreover, it is important to note that affordability is just one of many factors that serve as the impetus for students to enroll in certain types of institutions. Others include institutional fit and the ability for one to become integrated into academic and social fabric of the institution. The latter is the reasons Black students elect to attend HBCUs. Research has consistently shown students who attend HBCUs seek an educational experience that is centered within their lived experiences. Consistently HBCUs score well when examining whether Black students feel connected to the school community and how they perform after graduation. Their post-baccalaureate success has been documented by findings in a Gallup-USA Funds Minority College Graduates Report as well as other studies. Without a doubt, HBCUs play a critical role educating Black students and other first-generation students.

Additionally, we must acknowledge there are a small number of HBCUs that are community colleges. However, it is problematic when individuals conflate proposed tuition-free community college programs with HBCUs success. Earlier we highlighted that there are HBCUs with various acceptance rates and missions. This point is frequently lost when discussing HBCUs. Further, we must consider how comparing or conflating HBCUs with community colleges is rooted in anti-Blackness. You see, regardless of the prominent alumni that have graduated from HBCUs, they will always encounter individuals that believe (explicit or implied) that they provide an inferior education. How we counter these misconceptions should be considered when discussing proposed policy changes.

Dr. Robert T. Palmer is professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the School of Education at Howard University.

Dr. Larry J. Walker is an assistant professor and EdD program Liaison in the Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education at the University of Central Florida. 

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