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Changing the Political Rhetoric Surrounding HBCUs

Brandon AllenBrandon Allen

Politics are an important cornerstone of American culture. Those who engage in politics have the ability to reinforce ideologies and impose new ones that are often perceived as truth. In particular, we have seen politics reinforce stereotypes regarding the Black community in terms of criminality, education and work ethic.  One of the most damaging political commentaries have been criticisms targeted toward Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the ongoing questioning of their relevance within today’s educational landscape.

HBCUs have served low-income African-American students for decades with numerous prominent leaders having graduated from them including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Stokley Carmichael and Diane Nash. Though HBCUs account for only 3 percent of all 4-year institutions of higher education in the United States, they graduate nearly 30 percent of African American students in STEM fields. Recent studies have also highlighted the academic and professional achievements of Black HBCU students as compared to their Black non-HBCU counterparts. However, HBCUs are still often left to defend their relevancy unlike predominantly White institutions.

During a recent appearance by President Barack Obama at Southern University, a student asked the president what he could do to bolster the appeal of attending an HBCU when students are left to decide between an HBCU, LSU or Tulane. While President Obama highlighted the historical successes of HBCUs in preparing leaders, he also used this as an opportunity to highlight the graduation rates of HBCUs and suggested that students should not be restricted to attending just HBCUs. However, President Obama missed an opportunity to highlight the successes of HBCUs in graduating African-American students, or programs such as the White House initiative on HBCUs or the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Political pundits often fail to acknowledge the policies that have adversely impacted students attending HBCUs. For example, some experts have noted the decrease in Pell grant funding and changes made to Parent Plus Loan requirements in 2011 that have contributed to declining enrollment at many HBCUs. For example, according to the Brookings Institute, Pell grant funding decreased from $39 billion in 2004-05 to $30 billion in 2013-14. Policies related to financial aid also disproportionately affect low-income students, who in most cases are African-Americans.

For example, a recent report found that African-Americans represent roughly 15 percent of the college student population, but about 46 percent of these students are Pell grant recipients. These numbers are even higher among HBCUs where 70 percent of African-American students are Pell grant recipients.

Politicians are often well positioned to support the need for HBCUs. For example, speaking at the 2014 National HBCU Conference, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that HBCUs are well positioned to help increase America’s overall college graduation rates. For example, Duncan highlighted the growing minority population and the role HBCUs have in graduating large numbers of students of color in STEM and education. However, this type of public support should not be restricted to settings where only HBCUs are the focal point. Rather, political figures should advocate for HBCUs by calling for increased funding and financial aid adjustments so that students have the ability to afford the education HBCUs can provide.

The upcoming presidential election will likely result in leadership that will develop policies that pose new challenges for HBCUs. Thus, to ensure the future relevance of HBCUs, elected officials should advocate for increased state and federal funding of HBCUs. It would also be valuable for politicians to highlight the return on investment among HBCUs and their long history of providing educational access for low-income students.

HBCUs have a strong history in preparing African-American students for success that is unparalleled. Unfortunately, recent federal and state policies have not benefited HBCUs and, combined with the political rhetoric directed toward these institutions, serve as a barrier to their long-term viability and growth. As demonstrated recently at Kentucky State University, HBCUs are constantly under threat of closing their doors, and, if systematic changes to state and federal policies are not made to preserve these institutions, thousands of African-American students will find themselves without viable opportunities for a college education.

Brandon Allen is a doctoral student in the Department of Youth Development and Agricultural Education at Purdue University. Brandon’s research interests focus on critical race theory, culturally relevant pedagogy and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Levon T. Esters is an associate professor at Purdue University. Levon’s research focuses on the STEM career development of underrepresented minorities (URMs), mentoring of females and URM graduate students in STEM, and the role of historically Black land-grant institutions in fostering the STEM success of females and URMs.

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