HBCUs are attracting students at record numbers and experiencing an uptick in philanthropic support, both of which are chipping away at decades of underfunding. It’s a promising trend—one that we have a responsibility to ensure isn’t just a blip. Even with these successes, the long-term viability of many HBCUs remains precarious if we don’t take advantage of this moment to create lasting, systemic changes to advance the ways HBCUs operate and provide more Black Americans with access to the distinct educational opportunities these historic campuses offer.
While higher education has traditionally shied away from comparisons to the corporate world, recent trends—including the demographic cliff and the Great Resignation—have illuminated the need for colleges and universities to consider new ways of doing business. Increasingly, there are signs that much of the technology prolific in the business sector could be leveraged to improve efficiencies in higher education. Consider robotic process automations (RPAs), customer relationship management tools (CRMs), and artificial intelligence like chatbots. These tools are automating manual tasks, freeing up employees for more valuable human interactions, providing customers with personalized experiences, and collecting and analyzing data for more strategic decision-making. Even though some of this same technology is already helping to advance better-resourced institutions, many HBCUs have not been able to keep up with investments in technological infrastructure due not only to budgetary constraints, but also to staffing limitations. In fact, one of the greatest roadblocks to effective technology implementations is the availability of talent to shepherd the process, which spans procurement, deployment, integration, training, operations, and maintenance. Unfortunately, HBCUs have not been immune to the hiring and retention challenges impacting higher education recently.
As a result, some HBCUs have been forced to rely on a limited staff which is compounded by using obsolete and less efficient practices in key areas like recruitment and enrollment, student success, and fundraising. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much this reality is impacting outcomes, it’s easy to imagine the benefits of technology that eliminates manual data entry, sends personalized messages to students at scale and makes data analysis possible—all while freeing up staff time for personal interaction with students, which is where HBCUs really excel. A robust technological infrastructure can boost employee productivity, satisfaction, and retention, enhance enrollment, materially improve student success, and reduce overall institutional costs. Automating manual processes, leveraging artificial intelligence, and establishing broad access to data creates procedural consistency that doesn’t disproportionately rely on staff retention, and also enables new staff to get up to speed quickly. Take for example the implementation of a CRM, which can improve personalization and segmentation of communications with student and alumni and can help HBCUs save big money in the long term. In fact, a study on the impact of CRMs, indicates potential cost savings of $2.4 million with a 195% ROI within three years. However, the barriers to entry for HBCUs to obtain and implement these tools remain high
. In addition to the upfront costs of software— fees which are usually prohibitive for many historically Black institutions— the implementation of enterprise-wide technology can strain existing processes, operational policies, and staff expertise. Effective integration of tools that can transform the student (and employee) experience at HBCUs requires campus-wide buy-in as well as resources for training, optimization of systems, customization of out-of-the-box products specific to HBCUs, and support for all staff, not just those in IT or admissions. Such an approach represents a significant shift in thinking about how best to leverage the strengths of HBCUs and engage their audiences. Not only does it require more financial investment, but it also requires more staff bandwidth and specialized expertise—all obstacles in the current landscape. And there is potential in a comprehensive approach that starts with shoring up technological infrastructure and institutional procedures at a moment where HBCUs are experiencing a resurgence of interest and support.
Data shows HBCUs have long outperformed better-resourced institutions in outcomes for Black students. Imagine what more they could do and how many more students they could serve with the infrastructure and tools necessary for their continued short and long-term success. The longer HBCUs are left to operate without strategic investments and support, the farther behind they will fall. Now is the time to build on the longstanding success of HBCUs by catching them up to wealthier institutions and propelling them forward into a world where technology and innovation will separate who thrives from who is left behind.
James Runcie is the CEO and co-founder of the Partnership for Education Advancement and former Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education. The Partnership for Education Advancement is a non-profit that provides sustainable solutions to HBCUs and MSIs to help them serve their students and meet their strategic goals.