The HBCU Debate: Are Black Colleges & Universities Still Needed?

Started as a response to racism and starved of financial support, HBCUs have to do more with less

Does it matter where you get your degree? (Source: Thinkstock)

Critics have called them a race-based anachronism. Others have said worse: They’re inferior, they’re in need of a new mission, or they should be managed by for-profit entities. Yet, the data show that historically Black colleges and universities [HBCUs] contribute significantly to the Black middle class and the nation’s economy, and in spite of fewer resources, graduate impressive numbers of majors in education and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM]. Although most have a majority Black student body, the faculty at many HBCUs is strikingly diverse, sometimes more than 50% non-Black. Moreover, these institutions have never discriminated on the basis of race.

But, in an age of increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S., do we still need HBCUs?

Chancellor Charlie Nelms of North Carolina Central University in Durham says yes. “HBCUs provide a culturally affirming, psychologically supportive environment. Students don’t have to prove they belong here.” NCCU provides its students “intentional, intrusive, focused” academic assistance, says Nelms.

HBCUs represent about 3% of colleges in the U.S. but enroll 12% of all Black college students and produce 23% of all Black college graduates. Remarkably, this small group of colleges confers 40% of all STEM degrees and 60% of all engineering degrees earned by Black students. They also educate half of the country’s Black teachers and 40% of all Black health professionals. And they do this with much less funding support than that of traditionally White institutions.

Solange Sayers, a graduating senior at Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana, has been very happy with her HBCU experience. Originally from St. Lucia, Sayers was elected Miss Grambling last year. She is the first non-American to hold this post. “I came to this country with an open mind,” she says. “I was goal-oriented and wanted to take advantage of the opportunities here.”

One challenge she did encounter at Grambling was the school’s unpreparedness for the influx of internationals that came on campus in 2006—500 students from Africa, Belize, Haiti, Nepal, and the West Indies. “Even dealing with our accents proved trying,” recalls Sayers. But the school worked to overcome the problems and the situation improved. Sayers developed relationships by joining various campus organizations, including honor societies and a national sorority, Zeta Phi Beta, and it was her friends who encouraged her to run for Miss Grambling. Sayers, who studies nursing, chose Grambling because of the generous financial aid she was offered, not because it was an HBCU; she has since won scholarships.

Tyron Young, a senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, initially considered attending the University of Maryland but changed his mind after talking with the assistant principal at his high school, a charter school in Baltimore called National Academy. “The idea of attending a Black school appealed to me,” Young says. “I’ve had experiences here I would never have had anywhere else—singing backup for Aretha Franklin and on a soundtrack for Spike Lee, for example.” Young, who plans to teach, also has received a Bill and Camille Cosby scholarship and talks with Bill Cosby personally.

Young grew up in Baltimore surrounded by African Americans and attended schools that were all Black, so for college he wanted the comfort and familiarity of a majority Black student body with which he would share certain commonalities. Yet, he enjoys working with all kinds of people: He is now working with a racially diverse group to establish a student mentoring program in Washington, D.C.

Marc Lamont Hill, host of Black Enterprise’s Our World television show and Associate Professor of Education at Columbia University Teachers College, says HBCUs must be supported, especially because of the way they value their students and work to increase their students’ confidence. But he says there are problems the schools must address. An issue Hill sees as particularly regressive is the cultural conservatism that he says pervades all HBCUs: for example, rules forbidding choices like dreadlocks or braids or mandating attendance at chapel services. “These schools have only a veneer of progressivism,” he says. “Many don’t even have African American studies departments, and many are anti-gay.”

Other challenges Hill mentions include less-competitive financial aid packages, fewer resources, and a less-flexible curriculum. But he also feels that HBCUs are no longer as esteemed in the Black community as they once were—now that they have a choice, the best Black students can and often do go to the Ivy League or other elite schools, although it’s not unheard of for Black students to turn down Ivy League acceptances to attend HBCUs. Hill, who attended Morehouse for two years, says HBCUs “are more relevant now than ever,” but they must address these issues if they want to provide intellectual leadership.

A 35-year-old New York City public school administrator (who asked not to be named) graduated from Hampton University in 1999, looks back at his college years fondly, but, like Hill, he sees room for improvement. “The best part of my college experience was pledging my fraternity, Omega Psi Phi,” he says. “But the rules—such as the curfews, not wearing a hat indoors, and not being allowed to own a microwave—were too constricting and didn’t allow room for personal growth.”

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