5 Factors that Influence the Future of HBCUs

When HBCUs (or historically black colleges and universities) first began popping up in America, they were a necessity to higher educational paths for African American young people. Benefactors like John Rockefeller founded Spelman College in Atlanta (named after his wife, by the way) in order to give black students a shot in a nation still very much in the throes of Jim Crow laws. Most of the 105 HBCUs were founded in former slave areas that still presented steep challenges for African Americans that aspired to higher education but faced discrimination in predominantly white college settings.

HBCUs fulfilled their original intent. Some of the nation’s brightest and most influential minds came out of HBCUs. Langston Hughes was a Lincoln University graduate. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his degree from Morehouse College. Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, education expert Marva Collins and Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons all earned degrees from HBCUs (from Tennessee State University, Clark Atlanta University and Dillard University, respectively). These powerful pillars of the African American community were able to achieve optimal success in life because of the education they received from HBCUs.

What about now? Do ambitious African American students really need a HBCU to achieve success? Perhaps a more poignant question is this: does it help or hinder the African American community when its members attend a HBCU today?

With various HBCUs closing their doors for good, the question is more pertinent than ever. Saint Paul’s College was forced to close its doors in 2013 after an unsuccessful merger attempt and unsustainably low enrollment figures. Atlanta’s Morris Brown College filed for federal bankruptcy protection after finding itself $35 million over its head.

Let’s take a look at five factors that will determine the future of HBCUs in this country.

  1. HBCUs are STEM powerhouses. HBCUs are important hubs for developing the greatest STEM minds in the nation, with 65 percent of all Black physicians and half of all Black engineers graduating from HBCUs. The Tuskegee University College of Engineering and Alabama A&M University of College Engineering, Technology and Physical Sciences are not just top engineering schools among HBCUs – they are among the best in the nation. Spelman College is the second largest school in the nation that sends Black undergraduates on to medical school. Jackson State University receives the highest amount of HBCU federal research funding every year, at $68 million, and is known for its “research intensive” programs.

Claflin University students work alongside the South Carolina Center for Biotechnology and receive hands-on industry training and connections in the field long before graduation. Xavier University of Louisiana has a consistently top-ranked pharmacy program and is a sought out school for those hoping to advance to medical school. Florida A&M University consistently ranks at the top of all colleges that graduate Black students with doctorates in natural sciences and engineering. In June, Fayetteville State was awarded a $718, 000 government research grant that included plans to oversee STEM instruction to local high school students. The advancements these schools are contributing to STEM fields are not just relevant, they are groundbreaking and an asset to the industries the graduates eventually serve.

  1. Government-mandated policy changes may damage HBCUs. In October of 2011, the U.S. Department of Education adjusted its lending policies for these popular, and in many cases necessary, loans to align more closely with what a traditional bank would require in the way of income and credit worthiness. All colleges took a hit with these changes, but HBCUs lost an estimated $50 million in the first full year these changes took place. For many HBCUs, the college population is made up of first-generation students with parents who often have not set aside the funding for a college education, but want to contribute financially. When PLUS loan eligibility changed, it felt like a blow directed at HBCUs.

Additionally, Governors like Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Mississippi’s former governor Haley Barbour have announced plans to merge HBCUs with each other or other predominantly white institutions in moves that are intended to slash state operating costs. Treating any two HBCUs as institutions that are alike enough to merge without incident is flawed though. Planning to merge a HBCU with a predominantly white schools is even more off-base. These individual schools have their own histories, their own student cultures. Perhaps it makes financial sense to merge HBCUs with others similar in size or scope, but it undermines the collective institutions, undercutting their autonomy and what they can offer to potential students.

  1. HBCUs are still havens for disadvantaged students. The achievement gap in K-12 learning may be narrowing, but it is still exists. Even minority students who end up graduating from high school drop out of college at higher rates than their white peers. While all types of colleges are picking up on this weakness and looking for ways to retain students, many HBCUs stand out as examples of how to succeed at having students return after freshman year. A U.S. News ranking lists Spelman College (at 88 percent retention), Morehouse College (82.5 percent), Howard University (82.3 percent), Florida A&M University (79.5 percent) and Winston-Salem State University (78.3 percent) as the top five HBCUs for having students return to campus after freshman year.

As a comparison point, the top 10 predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, had retention rates that ranged from 97.5 to 99 percent – BUT the retention numbers for minority students was lower. The campus culture and student-centric programs at these PWIs are stellar but it also stands to reason that the students attending top PWIs, like Brown University and the University of Notre Dame, are predisposed to staying in college anyway – while HBCUs have many more obstacles to overcome when convincing and encouraging their attendees to stay. HBCUs are also proving to be thought leaders when it comes to advancing rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender students, with Morehouse College offering its first LGBT course this past spring.

  1. With other affordable and flexible options such as online schools, fewer people may be drawn to HBCUs.

Perhaps the largest factor crippling HBCUs today is the prevalence of online college programs. From schools like the University of Phoenix which is completely online to individual programs offered by traditional campus schools, students who need college-work-family flexibility are finding it outside HBCU campuses. All demographics have flocked to online schooling, but minorities have been especially targeted. HBCUs have traditionally been viewed as places for underdogs, but online schooling programs have overtaken that description with the combination of convenience and a wide array of programs.

However, HBCUs are still an affordable option for many students and often come with generous financial aid packages. For example, HBCUs like Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Mississippi cost as little as $4,940 for in-state students for an entire academic year (before any grants or financial aid) or just under $7,000 for in-state students who choose to live on campus. Even out of state students get a pretty good deal – adding just $1,000 more to that total.

Even HBCUs with top billing offer affordable routes for their students, like Howard University in D.C. that saw 52 percent of students in 2012 with their financial needs fully met.

  1. Infrastructural problems may hinder progress. HBCUs were not well-prepared for the changes in loan policies. As far as online schooling is concerned, most HBCUs are just finally implementing full-degree online programs and embracing the idea that our students don’t need to be on a physical campus to benefit. Yes, the campuses of HBCUs are their biggest advantages, steeped in history and a palpable air of shared struggle. This doesn’t mean we should force our students to set foot on our campuses, or not come at all.

A lack of stability in leadership and investment in students through equipment and resources are also issues that have plagued some HBCUs.An essay written by a recent HBCU graduate who declined to name her school specifically expressed shock at the under-sophisticated classrooms and technology resources at her HBCU. She maintains that she would rather see her former school be shuttered than donate money to it.

With a lot of changes that make education more accessible in other schools, HBCUs are going through some growing pains when it comes to staying relevant. All is not lost, though—providing a safe space for black students, embracing diversity, and playing to their strengths (such as STEM) can help HBCUs keep their place in our current landscape.

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