July 20, 2023
Now That Affirmation Action Is Dead, Black Folks ‘Need HBCUs More Than Ever’
In the wake of the June 29 Supreme Court ruling, which effectively prohibits the consideration of race in higher education admissions, it is not surprising that a tide of dissent has emerged. President Biden, expressing his deep disappointment, characterized the 6-3 decision as a profound setback.
Numerous observers have remarked upon the ruling’s adverse impact on diversity within higher education institutions nationwide, as well as its regrettable imposition of barriers upon numerous deserving students aspiring for higher learning. Across the country, universities and colleges find themselves reassessing their admissions processes, while some continue to affirm their commitment to holistic assessments of applicants in their admission decisions.
Amidst the justified outrage and widespread critique, it is crucial to recognize that the SCOTUS ruling signifies a pivotal juncture with far-reaching implications for historically Black colleges and universities. These esteemed institutions have long borne witness to the inhospitable reception faced by Black students in predominantly white colleges and universities (PWIs), regardless of their exceptional qualifications.
As this pivotal moment unfolds, it is noteworthy that former President Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed “genius” and ever the self-congratulatory champion of conservative policies, couldn’t resist patting himself on the back for his role in stacking the court with conservative justices, while also celebrating the SCOTUS ruling.
With his typical lack of subtlety he said, “This week, those justices ruled to move our country forward with a merit-based system of education. If you’re a worker and you work very hard in school, you got fantastic marks, somebody that hasn’t done nearly as well who perhaps has not worked nearly as hard will not be taking your place.”
The implication behind the phrase “taking your place” is none other than a thinly veiled reference to individuals from the Black community. Do opponents of affirmative action possess some sort of mystical ability to discern the qualifications of Black students based solely on their skin color? Do they have a secret blackness radar that magically detects inadequacy?
But let’s not forget, Trump is the same man who shamelessly peddled falsehoods about his own educational achievements, so forgive me if I’m not entirely convinced by his sudden commitment to academic integrity and merit. But let’s not dwell on the past fabrications of that “genius.” Instead, let’s address how this ruling presents a remarkable opportunity for HBCUs to swagger into a new and transformative future if they play their cards right.
Following the court’s decision, several HBCU presidents expressed concern. Morgan State University’s president, David K. Wilson, stated that the ruling would undermine decades of progress, disregarding the value of diverse backgrounds in enriching the academic environment.
“By eliminating one’s ethnicity or racial background as a consideration in admissions decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has, in many regards, turned its back on the inherent value of unique experiences and perspectives that students from diverse backgrounds bring to the academic environment, enriching the educational experience for all students,” Wilson said in a written statement.
Delaware State University’s president, Tony Allen, described the decision as having a chilling effect on college matriculation for people of color, and being harmful to society.
Howard University’s communication office stated that the ruling would have a devastating impact on diversity in higher education, limiting access for students of color and hindering their preparation to contribute to society.
Spelman College’s president, Helene Gayle, expressed deep disappointment, emphasizing the reversal of progress, the loss of equal access, and the importance of diversity for democracy.
“This ruling reverses generations of progress that opened the doors for Black and brown communities to have equal access to higher education at institutions of their choice. It also goes against the growing diversity of our nation and the importance of diversity for our democracy,” she said.
Morehouse College’s president, David Thomas, called the decision a “travesty” with potentially enduring negative effects, including a significant reduction in the black student population at elite colleges. “The estimate at some elite colleges is that the impact of this decision will reduce the black population, student population, by 40%,” Thomas said in an interview with a local television station in Atlanta.
While Thomas expressed concern over the potential enduring, negative effects of the decision, including a significant reduction in the Black student population at elite colleges, it is important to acknowledge the contrasting admissions practices between HBCUs and PWIs.
Unlike PWIs, HBCUs have traditionally not considered race as a factor in admissions. However, it is important to recognize the historical context in which HBCUs faced pressure to enroll more white students after desegregation legislation. The threat of severe sanctions, such as closure or merging with PWIs, compelled HBCUs to increase their white student enrollments. Over the past few decades, the number of white students on Black college campuses has continued to trend upward.
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the number of white students in HBCUs grew from around 20,000 in 1976 to approximately 34,000 by 2001, reflecting a 60% increase. It is worth noting that two HBCUs, Lincoln University in Missouri and Bluefield State University in West Virginia, currently have a higher number of white students enrolled compared to black students.
In the case of public HBCUs, the recruitment of non-Black students becomes necessary to maintain accreditation and secure government funding. These institutions actively seek students from predominantly white and Latinx high schools to meet racial diversity standards. Consequently, public HBCUs tend to have a higher proportion of non-Black students, compared to private HBCUs. It is noteworthy that discussions and debates regarding this form of affirmative action, which benefits white students attending HBCUs due to proximity and financial feasibility, are not as prevalent.
In response to the SCOTUS ruling, Michael Lomax, the president, and CEO of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), expressed concern that it would limit educational opportunities for Black students and students of color at PWIs. He anticipated that this limitation would result in a surge in demand for HBCUs. Despite the challenging circumstances, Lomax adopted a more optimistic perspective, viewing this as an opportunity.
In a statement posted on the organization’s website, Lomax remarked, “The Supreme Court ruling will close the door to educational opportunity for many Black students and students of color who want to attend non-HBCUs.” He acknowledged that, because of the ruling, more students would likely turn to HBCUs for their college education. Lomax also expressed confidence that HBCUs would make every effort to meet the increased demand from students. He emphasized the significance of HBCUs, stating, “America needs HBCUs now more than ever.”
Lomax is correct.
The SCOTUS decision is likely to result in even more declines in racial diversity among many postsecondary institutions, leading to talented students of color seeking alternatives. In 1996, the residents of California decided to prohibit affirmative action policies based on race in public universities within the state. Following suit, eight additional states – Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington – adopted similar measures by prohibiting race-based considerations, often through ballot initiatives that received approval from the states’ voters. Consequently, several universities in these states have encountered significant challenges in their pursuit of achieving racial diversity on their campuses due to these bans.
HBCUs can help fill this gap, but as Lomax and others have argued, these institutions require greater investment. Currently, HBCU endowments pale in comparison to those of PWIs, and federal research and development grants awarded to HBCUs are minimal.
A recent report from the Brookings Institute revealed a stark disparity between the endowments of the 10 largest HBCUs and predominantly white institutions in 2020. The top 10 HBCU endowments were found to be 100 times smaller than those of their predominantly white counterparts. Even when combining the total endowments of all HBCUs in the country, which amounted to approximately $3.9 billion in 2019, it was still less than the endowment of New York University alone ($4.2 billion).
The authors of the Brookings report also reported that HBCUs receive less than 1% of federal research and development grants, which leads to a lack of resources for both students and faculty. The report also stated that given the anticipated increase in demand for HBCUs following the SCOTUS decision, it is crucial for states, corporations, philanthropies, and individuals to reevaluate their investments in these institutions. As mentioned in the report, HBCUs require regular access to investment capital from various sources, including traditional banks, community development financial institutions (CDFIs), philanthropy, and other trusted, mission-driven partners. Such investment would enable long-term planning for institutional development and expansion.
To maximize their impact, HBCUs need to be having discussions about how to generate revenue through community and economic development activities to strengthen their financial standing in their surrounding communities. The Brookings report suggested that revenue generated from land and property acquisition, as well as the commercialization of research, patents, and entrepreneurial activities, can bolster endowments and be reinvested in students and faculty. The increased student demand also means that these institutions must solve the chronic housing shortages on campuses, invest in hiring more faculty, expand course options, and enhance campus security.
HBCUs have undoubtedly played a pivotal role in shaping and nurturing the Black middle class. To continue their legacy of empowerment, these institutions must prioritize the development and enhancement of programs that address pressing issues such as climate change in urban communities and the shortage of Black professionals in fields including medicine, law, psychology, science, journalism, and more. By cultivating a diverse range of professionals, HBCUs can contribute to the elimination of persistent disparities that manifest in various aspects of health and wealth.
In addition, HBCUs should forge strong partnerships with K-12 educational institutions to tackle systemic barriers that hinder students’ access to higher education. By addressing challenges like underfunded schools, housing discrimination, food insecurity, and income inequality, HBCUs can ensure that even the most talented students can pursue and attain higher education. It is through these collaborative efforts that HBCUs can continue to uplift their communities and drive positive social change.
In recent years, there has been a notable increase in enrollment at HBCUs as more Black prospective students and their families are choosing these institutions. While the overall number of Black students in higher education decreased during the pandemic, HBCUs have experienced a surge in applications from those who decided to pursue college. This trend can be attributed to a heightened awareness of racial justice issues, particularly during the Black Lives Matter movement. Students have expressed a desire to attend HBCUs, recognizing them as safe spaces where they can feel a sense of belonging and fully enjoy their college experience.
Parents seek institutions where their children can be protected and feel safe while acquiring knowledge and personal growth for a successful future. Black students have taken note of the message that they may not be fully welcomed at predominantly white institutions. Many are asking: Why continue to pursue validation and acceptance from predominantly white institutions if they fail to create a welcoming and safe environment for Black students?
In contrast, HBCUs provide an environment where Black students don’t have to worry about their sense of belonging or encountering a cold reception. These institutions offer a supportive and inclusive community for Black students, fostering an atmosphere conducive to their academic and personal development.
As predominantly white schools continue to grapple with ongoing challenges in achieving campus diversity, HBCUs stand at a pivotal moment, where they can seize a transformative opportunity. By taking the lead, HBCUs have the potential to shape a more equitable and diverse future in higher education and beyond.
Stacey Patton is an award-winning journalist and the author of Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America.