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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  • I am a graduate of Clark Atlanta University (c/o 2003) and I wouldn’t trade my experience at an HBCU for anything else. As with any school, there is always room for improvement. It’s just not heard of so much by predominately White Institutions because no one is doing any real extensive research on them to question their relevance. I currently attend a PWI as a graduate student and to compare the two, there is no real difference accept the fact that my current institution is not an HBCU and is disgustingly expensive. However, that is the price you pay for attending a private institution. Both my current school and CAU are private. Many HBCUs are state colleges.

    I appreciate the cultural experience I received while attending and the close-knit community I gained. Even now, I am still in communication with my classmates and colleagues from school. There is definitely a need to preserve our community through the agent of education but without proper reform, those who seek to tear down the importance of HBCUs will do so and find just cause. We just have to continue to progress. 

  • Short Answer – Yes, HBCU’s are still relevant. I attended an HBCU and while in college I was a part of an internship/fellowship program. This program provided the opportunity to meet other minority students from all types of colleges (ivy leagues, HBCU’s, other standard institutions, and the like). I would always get questions (from students) about my HBCU experience and why I chose to enroll in an HBCU and not other schools. This came from other students that had the same credentials as me – grades, working experience, extra-curricular activities. Companies would come to speak, interact and hire these students in the fellowship. What’s your point Charles? These companies were interested in other criteria not just particularly what school you attended. Sure HBCU’s are underfunded. HBCU’s do not always have the same type of resources as some of the other schools. However, the students from HBCU’s can still compete with others nationally or globally for that matter. It’s a personal preference when selecting a college or university. I love my HBCU.

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  • Blackscholar

    This is an excellent example of neoliberalism, multiculturalism, diversity(one way that is) and ahistoricism from many “so-called” Blacks the effort to implicitly dismantle the HBCUs in the 21st century to placate the White established order in this country. The title alone should be viewed as an explicit attack (or, shall I say in academic parlance, the “cueing of messages”) on the Black community. That said, the Black people(i.e., degree holding or not) from the community who really have our own “best interests” should publicly respond accordingly to those who are even conceptualizing even the idea of dismantling the need for HBCUs. Further, such persons should be viewed as an enemy to the collective Black community and should be immediately extricated from our community and only allowed when they publicly repent of their communal crimes. Final point, you would never hear any of these so-called Blacks, neoliberal, conservative Whites, Latinos, Asians, Jews, etc… ever say that should get rid of Brandies University, Jeshiva University, the University of Notre Dame, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, or NYU. In other words, see my point!

  • Christina B

    I attended a non HBCU, Bucknell University. I graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree so I was very pleased to hear that so many Blacks in STEM careers come from HBCU. I chose to attend a non HBCU because HBCU’s have not acquired the network or the weight/respect in the overall community that graduates need to excel. If students don’t graduate from well known HBCU’s like Spelman or Morehouse they are limited in the opportnities or doors opened to them. I do see a continued need for HBCUs, but also a continued improvement. There are way to many stereotypes about HBCUs that seem to prove true like graduates being offered less starting salaries than a non HBCU graduate. This is unacceptable. Perhaps with additional funding and even growing endowments HBCU’s could find a way to combat these stereotypes and become a competitve choice to a non-HBCU.

  • I was raised in the “hood” where African-Americans role models were very limited, unless your viewed drug dealers, and the like, as role models. While attending Morehouse College, there is a required Freshman course on Tuesday’s and Thursdays called “assembly”, that only requires your attendance to pass. Assembly was basically listening to various guest speakers, on various topics, and was usually of African descent. We would have internationally recognized people like Desmond Tutu, entrepreneurs like Jesse HIll and Robert Johnson, physicians, lawyers, college presidents, scientists, authors, senators, civil rights icons, and many more that represented the best in their perspective fields. The intrinsic value of meeting these people, hearing their message, had a long-lasting positive effect on my life. Its something that I would of never gotten from a predominantly white institution. So, yes we HBCU’s are still needed because they offer a unique, inspiring, experience, for those of us that didn’t get it in our perspective communities as children!

  • Calvin J. Adolph

    I have had the privilege to attend both private and public HBCUs (Howard and Southern Universities). I had received an Army ROTC scholarship and was being pursued by several colleges (some offered additional financial aid, free room and board, etc.). I chose to go to Howard because it was often called the “white Harvard” or “the Mecca”. Once there, I absorbed to true connection that HBCUs offered to the black community. Attending Howard made me feel as though I had something to contribute to my community by being a part of the “talented tenth”. I had to maintain the legacy passed down to me. Unfortunately, my scholarship was pulled for medical reasons almost as fast as I had arrived. Depressed, I came home and joined the Navy a year later. After fulfilling my service obligation, I enrolled into Southern. I was a nontraditional student now, entering college seven years after I had started. There were credit card vendors who preyed on unsuspecting college students and students who spent all of their refund checks on cars and clothes. The registration process was cumbersome and often discouraged me to complete the process. Instructors seldom came to class, preferring to use the adage, ‘you need me, I don’t need you’. There were a few fringe groups who tried to encourage the student body to become activists, but were seldom taken seriously by the majority. I believe that some HBCUs have forgotten their mission to provide an affordable institution where students are allowed to think critically about creating solutions that aided our communities to move forward. Those who are successful in graduating seldom look back to give to the institutions that have afforded them both bad and good times. HBCUs are still relevant if they understand that there is still an underrepresented and underserved community that is unable to afford the high cost of predominately white institutions. Finally, if they are not the custodians of African American History, they will find “our history” has been forgotten in this post-racial society.

  • Blackscholar

    This is an excellent example of neoliberalism, multiculturalism, diversity(one way that is) and ahistoricism from many “so-called” Blacks the effort to implicitly dismantle the HBCUs in the 21st century to placate the White established order in this country. The title alone should be viewed as an explicit attack (or, shall I say in academic parlance, the “cueing of messages”) on the Black community. That said, the Black people(i.e., degree holding or not) from the community who really have our own “best interests” should publicly respond accordingly to those who are even conceptualizing even the idea of dismantling the need for HBCUs. Further, such persons should be viewed as an enemy to the collective Black community and should be immediately extricated from our community and only allowed when they publicly repent of their communal crimes. Final point, you would never hear any of these so-called Blacks, neoliberal, conservative Whites, Latinos, Asians, Jews, etc… ever say that one should get rid of Brandies University, Jeshiva University, the University of Notre Dame, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, or NYU. In other words, see my point!

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  • Africa Black

    I, too, graduated from a HBCU, and I think HBCUs are relevant and needed in today’s society just like most black institutions/organizations (e.g. NAACP, Black Greek letter organizations and social fellowships, etc.) I can, however, see the merit in this article and I’m not offended by it. Our HBCUs need work and progressive leaders. Most black institutions overall need to wake up and re-evaluate their missions, purposes, policies and future goals. I feel like the majority of our black institutions are reactive rather than proactive and operating as if they’re in a time warp. A number of HBCUs, for example, update most things not because it’s the best for their students, but because they have to do so to avoid being scrutinized by society/accreditors. I still know of HBCUs who handle administrative issues (financial aid, registration, etc.) by carbon copy rather than online or they use the cheapest online platforms.
    I honestly do feel that a large number of HBCUs cut corners and don’t invest enough (thru $, pride, standards, etc.) in their schools to keep the passion for HBCUs alive. For example, I attended a public HBCU with a small endowment compared to neighboring univerisities. I love my HBCU, but even as an undergrad, I felt like the upper level administration did not understand the value of the school. By nature, a student will love their alma mater if they had friends, a good time, and graduated. But I don’t feel like the students were valued at all at my alma mater and instilled with pride for their school. As a result, I’m not surprised that most transferred or graduated & never gave back since their fondest college memories aren’t linked to the HBCU.
    Due to these hard economic times and the desire to be financially relevant and competitive with traditionally white universities, some HBCUs are giving up the souls of their school (and thus the pride and spirit of the students) to be more “whitewashed” and attract as many students as possible (hence, increases in enrollment) to the detriment of school culture and student development (hence, decreases in retention and graduation), which is the wrong way to fix our financial issues.
    In a nutshell, college should provide not only an education but also professional development AND an experience/link that you value all your life. Note that a number of people in the article referenced their fraternity of sorority because they were given an experience that always mentally/emotionally links them to their organization. HBCUs need to learn to value their students and do the same instead of perpetuating the “You need me; I don’t need you because I already have a degree.” attitude in administration/faculty. Students ARE the life blood of a university. Like the Ivy Leagues, if we instill a love for HBCUs (through a good experience, professional network, and superb education), students will give back and our endowments will grow. I hope HBCUs learn that before it’s too late…

  • S.Brown

    I am a black engineering graduate of Stanford University recently accepted to MIT (Sloan) and Duke (Fuqua) for business school and I do believe HBCUs are on the path of obsolescence. I chose Stanford for its top rank internationally in engineering as well as a Black Enterprise article that at the time ranked Stanford (13% black) as the best PWI for African-Americans. Coming from a family of 100% HBCU grads (Mom attended Tuskegee, 1 Aunt attended Howard, 2 Aunts attended Bethune Cookman, 1 Aunt attended Bowie State) I was highly encouraged to attend an HBCU. I applied to Spelman. When Spelman invited me to campus for the admitted students weekend where a 10PM curfew would be enforced (this after Stanford & Duke treated me like an all-star) I wasn’t exactly enamored. Needless to say, I did not attend. Curfews, mandatory church, and out-dated rules aside, we are in an era where technology & international experience and credibility are essential! The world is flattening and any institution that does not realize and embrace that concept will be left behind. I don’t see HBCUs encouraging research in cutting edge technology across industries or supporting their students to study/travel abroad. I had the opportunity to attend Howard for a semester in 2005 through the popular “Domestic Exchange Program.” I was astounded by the lack of academic/career motivation by the students, the unprofessionalism of the administrators, the lack of challenging coursework, and the overall mediocrity of the student resources (dorms, dining halls, computer labs, libraries, etc). I endured 3 days without hot water and weeks on end without reliable internet access in my dorm. Those are the basics! We would have several large companies come on campus for informationals where no students would show up, several classes where professors did not show up, and it seemed like students were more concerned with finding ways to segregate/differentiate themselves and with planning large social events than they were with graduating in 4 years. Not impressed. The HBCUs of yesteryear are just not the HBCUs of today! I am eternally grateful for the contributions of HBCU products in the past–my husband is a Morehouse grad c/o 95′ (who BTW will never give a dime back to Morehouse b/c of his experiences)–but we are not just competing with majority Americans anymore; we are competing with citizens of nations where children can operate a computer by 1st grade, master calculus by the 5th grade and speak at least 3 different languages fluently by the time they graduate. My advice: each school needs to focus on 1 or 2 specialties (i.e., business for FAMU, vetinerary medicine for Tuskegee, etc) then master those specialties to gain international visibility & credibility which will attract the best and the brightest students and faculty. This in turn will produce greater funding and endowments which in turn will attract better talent–the cycle continues…

  • Donovan

    HBCU’s are no longer needed, because other institutions do not discriminate against blacks. This was there reason they came into being. So many commenters seem caught up in the emotional, reflexively “pro-black” position, that they fail to rationally evaluate the question. Imagine there were no HBCU’s, blacks would simply go elsewhere. Asians don’t need majority Asian colleges to dominate academically. We should be working towards a country devoid of racial barriers. This is the same trend that saw Obama elected in 2008. I don’t see how segregating ourselves is going to improve the academic performance of blacks in the country. Isn’t it ironic how so many of the black in the Ivy League are from Africa and the West Indies, or are children of immigrants from those countries. Its just a different mentality that creates success.

    Cue the pseudo-intellectual angry black man in 3…… 2….. 1…….

  • Richard

    There is nothing to debate. Not only are HBCUs relevant, they are essential.  We need them-as does the world, more than ever, not less. Not only has post racialism been proven false-a hoax, we must operate from even more of a base of power than ever to compete globally. The numbers prove that HBCUs send more students to medical school, Wall Street, and many of the STEM professions than non-HBCUs.. Having graduated from Morehouse and having attended medical school at a top institution, I was selected for a prestigious fellowship at a Harvard hospital, where only one medical student in the country is chosen to study with a surgical pioneer. Not only was I the first Black student chosen in the history of the program, I was the first not chosen from the northeast or an Ivy League medical school. It was not my medical school that gave me the skills and aptitude to compete for such a prestigious fellowship, rather, it was the leadership skills taught at Morehouse that enabled me compete successfully with anyone in the world.  Graduates from other HBCUs have similar stories. My friends who did attend a predominately white institution often will acknowledge that it was often actually whites that  “self segregated” or “excluded them from circulating generational test banks” under a superficial guise of tolerance and  inclusion. Whether we go to an HBCU or non-HBCU it is time to all link arms to support them.  The question should be, ” how can we invest in HBCUs to make them even stronger?”

  • Roy

    It is quite unfortunate that an interviewed source for this article chose to describe certain culturally-unique HBCU practices pejoratively as being “regressive.” In that regard, self actualization need not be presumed to be the sine qua non of one’s collegiate preparation. It is one thing to acknowledge the universal need for any institution to improve its effectiveness. It is quite another to malign practices that are calculated to challenge accepted popular mores (especially when the institution’s historical legacy is faith-based).

    For decades, many of us have enjoyed the freedom alternatively to enroll into HBCUs or majority-white institutions, at various levels of undergraduate and graduate study. That choice is invaluable, and produces life-changing results for countless individuals.

    A continuing volume of litigation and legislation proves additionally that the general society remains greatly divided in determining the extent to which racial inclusion is of value in providing access to higher education opportunities. For that reason alone, the need for HBCUs is undeniable. Suffice to say that many other reasons that have been cited over the years continue to apply, including the impressive percentages of HBCU graduates who succeed at professional and graduate programs, irrespective of those programs’ historic racial identities.

    This is not to say that HBCUs are above criticism any more than any other higher education institution, or any institution unrelated to academia. Constructive criticism both inside and outside the academy are vital to the general society’s advancement. Yet, dismissively describing HBCUs as obsolete is an overreaction to very-correctable problems, and — quite frankly — an insult to the efforts of those who devoted their lives to their excellence.

  • Ashley V.

    I attended a HBCU my freshman year after attending a predominately white highschool and I was absolutely appalled at the way the other students acted and how serious they took their studies. I was a student in the Honors College and I don’t think I was challenged enough. I hardly attended classes because the work was so easy and the professors did not take the courses seriously themselves. I can believe that the high achievers in the college are the Carribeans, Africans and others because I was one of three Americans in my Honors courses. In all, we as a people need to really start taking a look at ourselves and see why we cannot compete with the rest of our peers here in America. Donovan makes a very relevant comment by stating that Asians do not need a special college to compete here in America I’m glad I gave up the HBCU for a more traditional school. I ended up graduating at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a Computer Engineering degree and a minor in Mathemathics. I also received my MBA from an international school. Both enabled the networking and skills to work in a diversed world. In all, I would like to see the end of HBCUs. Especially if they cannot evolve and provide the cutting edge advantage as other Universities and Colleges can give.

    • Jallen

       You poor experience indicates that HBCU’s should “end” because your freshman general ed classes were easy?

  • Africa Black

    I just wanted to come back and agree with Roy. A number of HBCUs are clearly broken (and some still have room for improvement like all colleges & universities), but they’re not beyond fixing. They just need proper leadership and need to be held accountable by alumni and students. I don’t think it’s about racial segregation, but about providing an alternative and unique environment that students of any race can choose to enter. Again, HBCUs need to do a better job of addressing the current concerns, which include financial transparency, lack of investment into school infrastructure, rigor of course work, outdated social constraints, professional development of students, and lack of global exposure. If they would address these issues, they could and would be top-notch and these discussions would be irrelevant.

  • Von

    I must agree with Christina B. I had the opportunity to attend Fisk University and with regret chose a non HBCU. It has nothing to do with how “Black” I am. Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I am very pro-black and I do believe in the power of the black family and black community. BUT I had to do some soul searching and decided i would be a greater asset to the black community by obtaining my degree from a non HBCU that is not struggling with finance or to keep accreditation. My biggest fear is to graduate and see all my hard work over 4 years go down the drain because major employers do not see the value in a HBCU education. 

  • Mr. Ice

    Why is it that the neoliberals and vitriolic critics never ask whether Jesuit Colleges (Gonzaga, Nortre Dame, Loyola, Catholic, Xavier (OH) and others) are still relevant?
    Why not assess whether Barnard College, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, or Wellsley and other predominantly white all-women’s colleges are still relevant? In short, like the aforementioned Catholic-based colleges, All-Women’s colleges, and those colleges historically founded exclusively for the Jewish Community (Yeshiva and Brandeis), these schools are primarily populated and operated by folk who are members of a group (a race of people) who are among the priviledged…. “race.” They are members of the dominant economic culture and socially priviledged group; the mainstream. The group, apparently, of which many “other” races of people aspire to emulate, attempt to assimilate with.
    They are associated with city officers who feel free to question whether a 70 year old man, on a cane, wearing glasses,about 5’6, who can produce family portraits and a Harvard ID; is a burgular rather than a homeowner (and then feign shock when he is insulted). About 400 members of this “group” are among the Forbes Billionaire List. How many of the Blacks make that List. That said, the “founding purpose” for HBCUs, all-women’s colleges, Jewish colleges, and other histroically white colleges, are no longer required (and are no longer exclusively relied upon (by the member’s of that population). The “founding purpose” for black fraternities and sorities no longer exists; join Delta Chi Epsilon. It is sad that in our efforts to move beyong race we refuse to acknowledge or examine certain realities and instead muttle over nebulous details.
    To be sure, the success of Black instiutions are in so many ways a reflection of the Blacks ability to demonstrate self-reliance, solidairty and socieconomic power and equality. Whether they be HBCUs, black-owned companies, neighborhoods, business persons, politicians, shouldn’t the Blacks be allowed to be proud of something?

  • Lauren Clark

    HBCUs are necessary because they still do provide top-notch learners in their various professions. In addition, they are a fervent part of the Black American experience which is American history.

  • William B. Lawson MD, PhD

    There is a special subgroup that has showed why HBCU’s are necessary: our Historical Black Medical Schools. Multiple surveys have shown that their graduates are more likely to serve the underserved regardless of ethnicity, and rank far higher than their more prestigious counterparts in addressing community needs. Moreover at a time when African Americans are less likely to get research grants HBCU graduates do comparatively better.

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  • Hiujay

    Why is it that when AA students attend HBCU’s they are self-segregating, but when whites attend predominantly white colleges they are not? The average HBCU is 80 AA which is very similar to white colleges being nearly 80 % white. 

  • BobSmith

    White colleges are no longer needed because whites can attend HBCUs. Close them down. Asians don’t need all Asian colleges to do well, so why do whites want to segregate themselves in predominantly white environments? Besides, the colleges with the worst graduation rates are white colleges. All people should go to HBCUs because they welcomed students when other racist schools would not. Also, white colleges were created for white men, so they are not created for others. Lastly, I went to a white college my freshman year, and my frisbee class was so easy, I hardly had to show up. I bet frisbee is harder at black colleges. I graduated from a black college, and now I now Oprah and Gayle, and Tom Brokaw. If you think this was a silly post, then read some of them that are antithetical to HBCU institutions.

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  • Kayla Rucker

    Yes,in my opinion HBCU’s are still relevant today. I myself, attends North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, North Carolina and I love my HBCU. African American students that come from all over the world should be able to attend a college that they are comfortable attending. I chose to come to this college because I knew I would fit in better than if I was going to a Predominant White Institution. Yes, this school needs more improvement, and I feel like if my HBCU had the same nice dorms and cafeterias like UNCG has, or North Carolina State University, then we would succeed as well. Taking away an HBCU would be like taking away African-American culture. Every black student should be able to enjoy themselves at their HBCU.