Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have played a critical role in American higher education since their founding, with many of these institutions tracing their history back to the post-Civil War period and the subsequent second Morrill Act (1890) emphasizing the need for practical education and mandating opportunities for black students. Now, nearly two decades into the 21st
century, they continue to be important contributors to the success of students, communities, and the nation.
Brian Bridges, PhD, is UNCF's vice president of research and member engagement and leads UNCF's Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute (FDPRI) and the Institute for Capacity Building (ICB). He identifies five key strengths of HBCUs, plus three challenges confronting them as they move forward.
- HBCUs produce student success. Bridges first notes that the 37 higher education members of UNCF disproportionately produce degrees from African American graduates compared to other institutions. HBCUs constitute some three percent of institutions of higher education, enroll 10 percent of African American students, and award around 17 to 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by African Americans. One-fifth of all African American business graduates come from HBCUs, as well as a higher than expected percentage of graduates in STEM fields and health professions. Additionally, a larger proportion of African American graduates from HBCUs go on to graduate school than from institutions of higher education as a whole. This is significant, particularly because seven in 10 students at HBCUs are low income students, compared to 40 percent nationally. “We’re doing yeoman’s work with fewer resources,” says Bridges.
- HBCUs drive the success of their communities. “HBCUs serve as economic engines in lower resource communities,” Bridges says. Most directly, these institutions raise the lifetime earnings of their graduates and help them find fulfilling employment. Additionally, the institutions themselves provide employment in their communities and act as drivers of economic prosperity.
- HBCUs are producers of social mobility. “There was no black middle class before HBCUs,” Bridges says. According to research from Brookings, “HBCUs are doing a better job than the average postsecondary institution, in terms of vaulting lowest-income kids into the top quintile as adults.” At a time when the public is debating the overall value of higher education, HBCUs are still providing that bump up in socioeconomic status that has often been the goal for those attending college.
- HBCUs can be an example to all institutions. HBCUs provide “best practice examples of how to produce low income [student] success,” Bridges says, adding that the experiences of these institutions “can be a lesson for the charter industry” or other institutions who are seeking concrete examples of how to work effectively with low income students for the best possible outcomes.
- HBCUs have an innovative spirit. “We’re not as grounded in how things have always been done,” Bridges says. The relative youth of many of these institutions, especially when compared with some of the older institutions in the country, means that they are more nimble with their approaches and able to do what works for their students and their communities.
- Why continue to fund HBCUs? “There are constant questions about our validity,” Bridges says. He explains that people continually question why HBCUs are needed, and that many people fail to understand that these institutions do not enroll black students exclusively, making them a good option for many different student populations. As explained above, HBCUs drive significant outcomes for their students and their communities but having misconceptions about the institutions’ worth and purpose “out there in the ether,” Bridges says, limits public desire to support them. This is a critical problem for colleges and universities that are already operating on unusually-tight budgets.
- Policy is always a concern. HBCUs are affected by “the policy environment that higher education faces in general,” Bridges says. For example, HBCUs might receive support under Title III of the Higher Education Act, which provides for grants to “help them become self-sufficient and expand their capacity to serve low-income students, by providing funds to improve and strengthen the institution’s academic quality, institutional management, and fiscal stability.” (US Department of Education) Clearly, any changes in such important policy can dramatically impact the funding HBCUs receive.
- Doing more with less is a continual limitation. Finally, HBCUs face continual challenges in securing resources. “[HBCUs] have been underfunded since their founding,” Bridges says. While many institutions of higher education face funding challenges, HBCUs tend to not have the same level of funding as other institutions, making their challenge even greater and their success stories even more impressive.
HBCUs are a vibrant part of both the history and the future of American higher education. As they surmount these obstacles and celebrate these successes, they are clear models for other institutions of higher education.
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti, MS, is the editor of
Academic Leader and the chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the author of
Lecture Is Not Dead: Ten Tips for Delivering Dynamic Lectures in the College Classroom and
The Care and Motivation of the Adjunct Professor.
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