This post is a slight deviation in subject matter from my usual commentary on pedagogy, edtech, and higher ed. Today is Juneteenth, a day of reflection and celebration of freedom. In that spirit, I recognize that I owe a debt of gratitude to the universities and the people within them that shaped me. Thus, I feel compelled to offer my insights about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the HBCU experience.
According to the Department of Education, as of 2018 there are 101 HBCUs in the United States, which enrolled approximately 292,000 students. While recent student enrollment numbers are up for HBCUs nationwide and 2020 was indeed the year of the HBCU, still, it’s important to look through history for lessons learned regarding the challenges faced by HBCUs. Over the period 2010 - 2018 the total enrollment for HBCUs decreased 11 percent. This percentage decline is relatively worse than the 7 percent decline among students attending colleges and universities during the same period, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. There has been a decrease in the percentage of degrees (bachelors and masters) earned by black students at HBCUs. This piece explores the possible reasons for this decline and sheds clarity on the need for HBCUs to continue reinventing themselves and the experiences they provide to modern students of color, so that HBCUs can prevent similar declines in the future.
Established prior to the Civil War Act of 1964, HBCUs originated as a result of deep systemic racism in the United States that prevented Blacks from attaining access to education equivalent to their white counterparts. Since their founding, HBCUs have been a cornerstone of Black educational excellence and achievement in literally every professional domain. From medicine to the arts, Black students have clamored for and invested in the familial atmosphere and culture of empowerment found throughout most HBCU campuses. Why, then, has the decline of enrollment occurred over the period 2010 - 2018? Why have students, faced with many more options, selected non-HBCUs for their higher education? Obviously the end of segregation provided increased access to education, as well as income increases, more expansive financial aid and loan options, and a generally more inclusive campus life among non-HBCUs.
How do HBCUs, then, leverage the brand? What are some hallmark distinctions that separate the HBCU experience that can persist so that students resist the temptation to choose elsewhere? I have graduated from two excellent HBCUs, where I earned my Bachelors and Ph.D. degrees. I also graduated from a superb predominantly white institution (PWI), where I earned my Masters degree. I've taught at both types of institutions, but mostly HBCUs. While both carry high educational standards, varying accreditation distinctions, and a multitude of programmatic offerings, I can say the primary difference between them is the unapologetic focus on black pride and culture at HBCUs. Sure, the HBCU experience embodies the classic characteristics of a “supportive environment, “caring professors,” and a “familial atmosphere.” These, however, can be found across a spectrum of universities. HBCUs and no other type of higher educational institution can proudly claim such a deep emphasis on curricular and co-curricular activities so heavily tailored to black students.
The core experience includes an emphasis on black success. Think Nikki Giovanni AND Emily Dickinson; James Baldwin AND Shakespeare; Garrett Morgan/Lewis Latimer AND Thomas Edison/Eli Whitney. Proudly, black contributions to the global advancement of humanity are placed at high level of importance within the HBCU learning environment. Core courses are replete with required knowledge of black and African contributions. Even the professoriate within HBCUs tend to be card carrying members of black empowerment organizations, be they religious, social, economic, or political. These professors understand the positive implications of being progressively black in their approach to everyday pedagogy.
Due to the election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, historic private gift-giving, and the racial justice movement, HBCUs are thriving. For this to continue, a focus on the core features of the HBCU experience will need to be prioritized by school officials if they wish to abate any future occurrence of declining enrollment. HBCUs should harness innovation, leverage traditions of excellence, maintain academic rigor, deepen industry partnerships, all while creating culturally uplifting environments, to continue attracting competitive students.