In the presumably post-racial age, are historically Black colleges and universities necessary? A new study from the United Negro College Fund’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, attempts to answer this question. The study, “Students Speak! Understanding the Value of HBCUs from Student Perspectives,” uses first-person interviews from UNCF member institutions to uncover the reasons why many students choose to attend HBCUs.
The report was co-authored by Dr. Tammy L. Mann, executive director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute; and Janet T. Awokoya, a senior research associate at the Institute.
Thirteen of the students participated in a focus group while 10 students had one-on-one interviews. Each student offered candid assessments of their secondary education, highlighting the pivotal role that individual experiences played in shaping their decisions to attend HBCUs.
“The reality is that everyday experiences of individuals continue to drive how they perceive and act on those perceptions when it comes to making major life decisions, including where they will seek a college education,” the authors write.
Among the study’s findings: students prize small student-to-faculty ratios. The typical UNCF institution enrolls an average of 1,379 undergraduates, compared with 1,908 for other four-year, private institutions. Mann and Awokoya observed that, for many of these students, smaller classrooms facilitate learning and provide a more active support system.
“Many of the comments shared by the students focuses on the need to feel connected — a sense of belonging — as an important driver influencing the decision to attend their institution of choice,” they write.
Other students chose to attend HBCUs after graduating from predominately White high schools, which, they believed, left them without a strong sense of their racial or cultural identities.
Among students, one widely expressed view was that HBCUs gave them an opportunity to be surrounded by perspectives and experiences that mirrored their own.
“I made a decision to come after the experience that I had at a predominantly [White] institution in order to embrace my own history, heritage and everything that has gone into making us who we are,” said one student.
The authors caution that the study’s small sample size makes it difficult to draw broad conclusions about its implications.
For example, at least 20 percent of HBCU students are not Black. The authors admit that there have not been “nearly enough [studies] devoted to understanding why these students find these institutions attractive.”
But the study provides enough encouraging evidence to suggest that HBCUs fare well against traditional universities when it comes to providing more engaged learning environments.
HBCUs should build upon these advantages, the authors say, by using face-to-face outreach programs and social media networks to connect with students.
Ultimately, say the authors, attending HBCUs allows students to “benefit from positive cultural experiences around being Black that they may not have received during their formal elementary and secondary education experiences.”