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Why the Future is HBCU

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Historically Black Colleges and Universities have played a pivotal role in American higher education for the last 150 years, awarding degrees to students who have gone on to become some of America’s finest innovators, leaders and revolutionaries. The schools have done this with considerably less money than their non-HBCU counterparts, serving significant proportions of first-generation students and students needing financial assistance. In the last year, the spotlight has shone on HBCUs as benefactors donated large sums to them following last summer’s protests for racial justice and, most recently, with President Joe Biden’s proposed American Families Plan earmarking $46 billion for colleges, universities and financial institutions serving minority groups. So read on as we highlight the brilliant work of HBCUs, the obstacles they still face and what their future may hold — and tune into OZY Fest this weekend, where we’ll be hosting a panel conversation about the future of HBCUs, in partnership with UNCF. If you purchase a VIP ticket, $10 from every sale will be donated to UNCF’s HBCU scholarship fund. Get Tickets.

the road to success

The HBCU Effect. They do more with less. Despite smaller endowments and less funding than their non-HBCU counterparts, HBCU institutions “work their magic,” performing far better than many expect by playing an imperative role in educating Black Americans. UNCF’s “HBCU Effect” highlights how, despite tight budgets, these schools yield 17 percent of Black Americans’ bachelor’s degrees and a quarter of their STEM degrees. Not to mention how HBCUs have been instrumental in the creation of America’s Black middle class, helping students climb the economic ladder and narrow the income gap between Black and white Americans.

Glorious Grads. In addition to graduating considerable percentages of Black doctors, lawyers, engineers, CEOs and members of Congress, HBCUs have produced some of America’s most revolutionary Black leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and a disproportionate number of Black mayors. Who else? Vice President Kamala Harris is a Howard University graduate. And how about the politician, voting rights activist, lawyer and author Stacey Abrams? A magna cum laude graduate of Atlanta’s Spelman College, the daring heroine is best known for her tireless, years-long project to improve Black voters’ ballot access and turn traditionally red Georgia blue. She accomplished that when Biden won the state’s electoral votes in November and the Democrats took both of the state’s Senate seats in January.

‘Missouri Effect.’ Experts have found that an increase in race-based harassment at high schools and predominantly white institutions (PWIs) is prompting a surge in HBCU enrollment as the schools offer a more supportive and nurturing environment. It’s an escalation of the “Mizzou Effect,” after the nickname of the University of Missouri, where fallout from racist incidents in 2015 tanked the school’s Black enrollment. Former President Donald Trump may have paradoxically helped HBCUs as well, both by approving a much smaller federal funding infusion than Biden’s proposal, and by stoking racism and making those schools’ halls seem all the more safe and welcoming.

Bridging the Income Gap. Further, a study by the Education Trust showed that HBCUs do a better job graduating low-income Black students than non-HBCUs do. Roughly half of the 105 HBCUs studied have more than 75 percent of their freshmen class coming from low-income backgrounds. Researcher Marybeth Gasman emphasizes that in attending and graduating from HBCUs the schools add significant value to not only the lower-income students’ lives but also the lives of their families in areas that really need that boost.

Life Benefits. But it’s not just the higher enrollment and graduation rates that HBCUs are flexing. A nationwide poll conducted by Gallup showed that HBCU graduates have more positive memories of their college experience and are more likely to be thriving with financial, physical and social well-being after graduating compared to their non-HBCU counterparts. And while HBCUs received some negative press after a 2010 paper claimed that HBCU graduates suffer from a “wage penalty” compared to Black students attending PWIs, economist Gregory N. Price found the opposite to be true: HBCU graduates tend to make more than their Black peers at non-HBCU institutions.

future Kamalas

Lauren Wesley Wilson. Unapologetically fearless, Spelman alum Lauren Wesley Wilson founded ColorComm, a platform that advances women of color in business, after realizing she didn’t know any other women of color in her field. Since then, ColorComm has grown to become the nation’s leading women’s platform addressing diversity and inclusion across the communications, marketing, media, advertising and digital arena, earning her numerous awards as a diversity and inclusion strategist. Don’t forget to watch Lauren at OZY Fest on Saturday, May 15.

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Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green. From winning homecoming queen at Alabama A&M in a landslide to becoming one of the fewer than 100 Black female physicists in the country, Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green has always done the unexpected. But it was a personal tragedy that defined Green’s career. After the aunt and uncle who raised her were both diagnosed with cancer, with her aunt refusing treatment because of the painful side effects, Green started the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation in her aunt’s name. She continued to challenge the norms, developing a groundbreaking cancer treatment that eliminates tumors with laser-activated nano-particles, treating cancer far less invasively.

Eva Dickerson. What’s college without some challenging of authority? Eva Dickerson remembers getting called out for wearing pants to Miss Spelman events. As the first queer Miss Spelman in the school’s history two years ago, Dickerson led the campus as an activist for social issues, including sexual assault, gentrification and food disparities — establishing the college’s first community farmer’s market. Now? Dickerson runs the Urban Agriculture Program at an Atlanta elementary school, teaching students the legacy of Black farming and promoting a green future for the next generation.

Tope Folarin. Growing up as the son of two Nigerian immigrants in overwhelmingly white Utah inspired this critically acclaimed writer and Morehouse grad’s debut novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man. Folarin hopes to send a message through his writing to those feeling marginalized that you can write your own narrative and construct your own identity that is true to who you are. Check out more of Tope at OZY Fest on Saturday, May 15.

innovations in motion

What HBCUs are doing that’s cutting edge so they can continue to close the wealth gap.

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First Black Police Academy. Amid cries for more community-based policing and greater diversity in police forces, Lincoln University became the first of the HBCUs to host a police academy. Black students joining the academy want to be agents of police reform from the inside out and fight against racial discrimination at the hands of police.

Internship Programs. Many students can’t afford to take unpaid internships because they need to earn money to pay for tuition, housing and books, which means they miss out on these opportunities for gaining valuable work experience. This is certainly true for many HBCU students. Companies and organizations such as Universal Music Group are increasingly setting up internship programs for HBCUs. Investing in those institutions is a mutually beneficial practice because such recruiting helps establish a pipeline that boosts workplace diversity.

Career Matching. Internships make students 56 percent more likely to receive a full-time job offer after graduation, yet 40-50 percent are unpaid, so internship obstacles for minority students impact their post-grad potential as well. The trend is called “career undermatching,” where college grads from low-income communities stray from careers that fit their ambitions and qualifications, in turn settling for careers within a narrow sphere of jobs with which they are familiar. But organizations like The Opportunity Network are dismantling this injustice by exposing students to a broader range of careers that align with their interests and aspirations. As a result, the non-profit gives students agency over their success, while providing employers with the talented grads they are looking for. Read More on OZY.

Diverity Within HBCUs. In 2017, all-women HBCU Bennett College became the first of the HBCUs to admit transgender students, with Spelman College following closely behind. The all-male HBCU Morehouse College joined the ranks in 2019. At the heart of the changes was the redefining of gender from something determined at birth to something students choose to identify with. HBCUs like Bowie State, which opened a first-of-its-kind LGBTQ health center, are at the forefront of prioritizing and addressing LGBTQ issues, according to a report by Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions and the Human Rights Campaign.

Social Impact Central. HBCUs offer Black students a safe harbor to weather the storms of the real world. As police brutality protests become more fraught, more students are looking to HBCUs as places of refuge, where they can belong and feel secure among a community of like-minded thinkers. HBCUs are also places where students feel they can learn about Black history outside of white-dominated or Eurocentric institutions. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, HBCUs saw an increase in applications. Could social justice movements help revive HBCU funding and admissions?

modern day jim crow?

How HBCUs still suffer from a lack of funding.

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Cutting Costs. Despite the donations and pledges for more funding, many HBCUs are still struggling (both public and private institutions). And it’s not just the dozens of HBCUs that shine despite minuscule budgets, but some of the largest-endowed historically Black institutions too. Harvard professor Cornel West and his co-author chastised Howard’s removal of their classics department, deeming it a “spiritual catastrophe.” Howard administrators Dr. Brandon Hogan and Dr. Jacoby Carter rebutted, arguing how the department cut was a painful but necessary result of a meticulous effort to determine how to best allocate the school’s limited resources. Howard University’s $700 million endowment, the largest of any HBCU, may seem grand, but you’d need 58 times as much to equal Harvard’s nest egg.

Parent PLUS Loans. Totaling over $1.7 trillion, national student loan debt is higher than ever. But the stresses of mounting student debt lead sacrificial parents to take on the debt themselves through Parent PLUS loans. Though initially intended for middle and upper-class families, PLUS loans have become especially common for low-income parents of HBCU students as the federal program provides funds with minimal checks on the family’s ability to repay it. A crucial program for Black families to send their kids to college, especially when the families have already maxed out on student loans, PLUS loans come at a disproportionate cost as their high interest rates place Black families even deeper into debt.

Women Outnumber Men. Women have been killing it on HBCU campuses. A 2018 report on HBCUs found that for every man, there is an average of 1.75 women, and they also have higher retention rates. In 2018, there were 110,853 Black men, compared to 180,914 Black women enrolled at HBCUs. But what is causing the gap? The school-to-prison pipeline is one possibility. The war on drugs, which has disproportionately affected Black men, is another. The pandemic certainly didn’t help, and the trend isn’t just on HBCU campuses. The decline in enrollment for American men was seven times as steep as it was for American women from 2019-2020.

Where Are the Athletes? Black athletes sustain the athletic programs of PWIs, earning the schools millions of dollars year after year. Yet despite their contributions to big universities’ financial gains and athletic glory, Black athletes are routinely exploited compared to their white counterparts. Black athletes almost exclusively attended HBCUs before desegregation, but PWIs have since relentlessly recruited Black athletes away from HBCUs, boasting large facilities, luxurious stadiums and highly viewed championship games. But with their power to help rebuild and revitalize struggling HBCUs, the question must be asked: Is it time for Black athletes to return? Stars like basketball player Makur Maker, who chose Howard University over non-HBCUs, are leading the way.

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