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Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Bridge over Troubled Waters

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Students

Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Bridge over Troubled Waters

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are a unique set of institutions established between the Civil War and the establishment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to serve African Americans. They have made noteworthy contributions to African American students to include access, attainment, and opportunities not commonly afforded to students of color. Now, nearly 60 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, HBCUs are demonstrating their resilience and commitment to serving the needs of their students, faculty, and communities. Like other institutions of higher learning, HBCUs face countless challenges arising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, administrators have watched as these challenges trickled down to their students. It has been documented that students who had to evacuate campus were left homeless and hungry, with no income or way to provide for themselves (Hawkins, 2020). Notably, HBCUs serve countless low-income, first-generation students who are severely impacted by the changes made to federal and state policies due to the pandemic that affect higher education institutions, such as to financial aid and student loans; these changes have a direct effect on students’ ability to access education and institutions’ ability to provide a quality education to students.

HBCUs, like all institutions, have jumped into action to address the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Notably, HBCUs are no strangers to addressing challenges to strengthen our institutions. Their leaders have engaged with state and federal legislators and policymakers and remain at the forefront of advocating for equitable funding for their institutions. Infrastructure investments are paramount to the long-term vitality of HBCUs. Deferred maintenance needs, technology upgrades, and real estate are primary concerns for HBCU leaders as they continue to support student success and institutional competitiveness.

Last June I wrote that “HBCUs must ‘move differently’ to serve and support their students. HBCUs have a significant role as they were the first institutions to provide African American students with the opportunity to obtain full access to a college education, without barriers to entry.” For many African American students, HBCUs have been a “bridge over troubled waters”—a fundamental part of their higher education experience. These institutions, I noted, provide opportunities of access to first-generation and disadvantaged students, serving as a “lifeline for many students who would otherwise not have a chance to receive a postsecondary education.”

It is no secret that HBCUs make astonishing contributions to the local, state, and national economy. A recent report from the United Negro College Fund (2017) revealed that HBCUs “are economic engines in their communities, generating substantial economic returns year after year” (p. 4). It also reports that HBCUs have an annual economic impact of $14.8 billion, which would rank in the top 200 on the Fortune 500 list of the largest US corporations (p. 5). In addition to their economic impact, HBCUs’ graduates play a pivotal role in the economic success of their communities, by enhancing their HBCUs play a major role in the economic success of their graduates by boosting their education skills and providing their skills and talents across the world. The report further notes that the more than 50,000 HBCU graduates in 2014 could expect total lifetime earnings of $130 billion (p. 5).

HBCUs, among them Alabama State University and Fisk University, have dominated the major news channels on account of what they have accomplished during this perilous time. Yet the fact remains: HBCUs have been underfunded and under-resourced since their inception. Decades of lower funding and smaller operational budgets have resulted in HBCUs having to address the critical need to modify their campuses to meet the day-to-day needs and ensure the safety of faculty, staff, and students.

As we move forward, it is imperative for states and the federal government provide significant funding and investment opportunities to HBCUs, which will provide these institutions and opportunity to reposition themselves for the future. There are four strategies to assist HBCU leaders to seek out additional funding.

  1. HBCU leaders must seek funding opportunities to address the many challenges that will strengthen institutions and position them to be competitive and address the various needs of our students during critical times. For example, seek out corporate donors to develop partnerships to support institutional initiatives.  
  2. It is imperative to seek the support of the alumni. Alumni support assists institutions in building larger endowments and builds motivation among institutional constituents.
  3. Next, leaders must advocate for more support and funding allocations from the federal government, which will be instrumental in addressing their infrastructural and technological needs as they seek to improve their students’ learning environments.
  4. Finally, leaders must seek out grant opportunities toward improving infrastructure to equip these institutions to better address the needs of their students. It is most critical at this time that funders, both the state and federal level commit their support toward investments in infrastructure, including the fundraising infrastructure of HBCUs.

As HBCUs respond to changing demographics and the challenges arising from the pandemic, we must address the need for equitable funding. For HBCUs to continue to be a bridge over troubled waters and attract students to campus, the funding to address the needs of HBCUs must be provided.


Hawkins, B. D. (2020, August 9). Benedict College ramps up safety measures as in-person classes begin. Diversity Issues in Higher Education. https://diverseeducation.com/article/187028

Gasman, M. (2010). Comprehensive funding approaches for historically Black colleges and universities. University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and North Carolina Central University. http://repository.upenn.edu/gse_pubs/331

Lee, J. M., & Keys, S. W. (2013). Repositioning HBCUs for the future: Access, success, research & innovation. Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. https://www.aplu.org/library/repositioning-hbcus-for-the-future-access-success-research-and-innovation/file

United Negro College Fund. (2017). HBCUs make America strong: The positive economic impact of historically Black colleges and universities. https://cdn.uncf.org/wp-content/uploads/HBCU_Consumer_Brochure_FINAL_APPROVED.pdf

Tanjula Petty, EdD, is the assistant provost of student success and special initiatives at Alabama State University.

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