by Sydney Freeman Jr., Ph.D. and Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D.
Negative commentary about the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is commonplace. As advocates and allies, we have suffered under the crushing weight of questions born of racial inequality and steeped in ignorance of the important historical mission and contemporary vision of HBCUs.
Despite being among America’s greatest treasures, HBCUs, institutions that have served and continue to serve as mechanisms to create social mobility for people of color, are regularly and repeated assailed. Who among us hasn’t heard these harsh words, argued against them, and in some instances uttered them ourselves?
As a critically important sector within American higher learning, HBCUs would benefit from the ability of its advocates and allies to better articulate the role of HBCUs in our modern society and context. As advocates and allies, we need to demonstrate the strong value proposition of HBCUs to external constituencies—including lawmakers, grant making agencies and philanthropists. We also need to bolster our core constituencies— such as our alumni as well as current and potential students. They too are asking and being asked questions of “relevance.” Chief among them is the ever-asked question: “Are HBCUs still relevant?”
However, many, if not all attempts to answer this question have failed to change the opinions of HBCU detractors. Sometimes our attempts even fall short of empowering HBCU advocates, allies, and potential constituents. At the very least, we should and can set the record straight, using facts to craft our position and to support our responses.
Inspired by Aida Manduley, who created and hosted a masterpost on her website to help those who needed assistance in combating the negative press being propagated by the media during the height of debate over the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we offer this HBCU facts guide. As a resource, it is a starting place that offers strategies for HBCU advocates and allies who are on the front lines of combating negative stereotypes and arming them with facts that will help them cogently, effectively, and eloquently defend our institutions.
Question 1- Are HBCUs relevant?
Answer: Don’t take the bait! Never respond to the question of HBCU relevance with a mere yes. HBCUs are not merely relevant. When someone asks you if they are, you should tell them all the reasons why the question is steeped in a racist paradigm that presupposes that there is no room for educational institutions to reflect the diverse cultural values of the nation. Tell them there are religious colleges; but no one asks are they relevant. There are women’s colleges and online colleges as well as traditionally white schools with large Asian and Asian-American populations and there are predominately white schools that boast large African-American student populations, but no one asks are they relevant. You tell them that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, HBCUs had an economic impact of $10.2 billion in 2001 alone. You tell them that more than 50% of the nation’s black public schools teachers and 70% of the nation’s black dentists earned degrees are HBCUs. You tell them that in 2014, the Florida A&M University College of Law boasts a 72% passing rate for its first time examinees. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) stand alone—amid incessant attacks to their relevance. Say to them, HBCUs are not merely relevant; HBCUs are exceptional, pioneering, innovative, supportive, and caring. HBCUs have been making a way out of no way since their foundings; and HBCUs, whether their detractors like it or not, are here to stay.
Question 2-Why are HBCUs academic offerings not competitive with PWIs?
Answer: Despite being historically underfunded, particularly by state legislatures, HBCUs are competitive with Predominantly White Institutions (PWI). We must consider that comparisons and contrast emerge as a result of historical realities. Comparing even the oldest HBCU to the oldest PWI without context ignores the important reality that William and Mary, the nation’s oldest PWI was founded more than two centuries before Cheyney University of Pennsylvania–that’s a more than 200-year head start which is reinforced with the stark differences of lives of slavery versus freedom.
Question 3- Are HBCU dorms terrible?
Answer: Nothing is true everywhere. Some HBCUs have great, new dorm facilities just as some PWIs have old, lagging ones. That’s of little comfort to a college student who encounters such challenges. But much has been and can be done. Many of HBCUs are beginning to develop stronger deferred maintenance funds to ensure that their institutions capital improvements are continual and on-going.
Question 4- Why do I keep hearing about the poor leadership at HBCUs?
Answer: This contextual and nuanced. In the past, the media has not generally been fair to HBCUs. Many presidents have not effectively engaged in the public media sphere, while unconscious bias and racism have led to a disproportionate number of negative stories about HBCU leadership. Like anywhere else in American higher education, there are some bad apples, but they do not represent the entire bunch.
Question 5- Will I be prepared for the real world if I go to an HBCU?
Answer: The majority of African American graduate and professional school students have completed their undergraduate education at HBCUs. The president of Microsoft John W. Thompson is a FAMU graduate. Rosalind Brewer is president and CEO of Sam’s Club is a Spelman College graduate. It doesn’t get more real than that.
Question 6-Why are HBCU endowments so small?
Answer: Endowments grow because of a mixture of factors such as alumni giving, philanthropy of friends of an institution, and targeted grants. Particularly, HBCU alumni are over-whelmingly first- and second-generation college graduates. They have not had the opportunity to accumulate the large sums of generational wealth, which enrich the bank books of many PWI’s. Donations to American colleges in 2014, for example, were up at most categories of institutions because a huge chunk of the total was brought in by a small group of elite and predominantly white American institutions. While there is always room for improvement and the HBCU community generally gives in proportion to what we have, some HBCUs like Claflin University, which boasts a 52.2 percent giving rate and The University of the Virgin Islands reported that 52.49 percent of alumni donated to the university in 2014, are exceeding the national average by leaps and bounds.
Question 7-Don’t just black people go to HBCUs?
Answer: Or nah! HBCUs have been and continue to be some of the most interracial spaces in America. In fact, Bluefield State University and West Virginia State University, which are both HBCUs, are actually overwhelmingly majority white.
Question 8-Don’t HBCUs have poor retention rates?
Answer: HBCUs have historically been institutions that educated both academically prepared and underprepared students, many which are first-generation college attending. Many HBCUs have and continue to be less selective in their enrollment process. These institutions focus on helping students that arrive to campus with less preparation and financial resources. When servicing such a clientele, some students take longer because they need additional time to develop academically. Others may stop school and return at a later time because of other family or personal commitments. Despite these challenges, HBCUs still prepare the majority of students who go on to attend graduate and professional schools.
Question 9-Why won’t HBCUs just merge?
Answer: Bethune-Cookman University, LeMonye-Owen College and Clark Atlanta University are examples of HBCUs that have, in fact, merged. While it worked for them, all HBCUs are not the same. Each HBCU has a proud and unique history, tradition, and culture.
Question 10- Aren’t most students at HBCUs those who couldn’t get in anywhere else?
Answer: Say what? That is not the case. There are many National Merit Scholars, Rhodes Scholars, and other highly prepared and competent individuals that chose to study at HBCUs. Many black students feel that these institutions fit their needs better because their brilliance will not be constantly questioned or diminished in these settings. A two-time HBCU graduate, astrophysicist Jedidah Isler (Norfolk State University; Fisk University) became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Yale in 2014, completing an award-winning study that examines the physics of particle jets emanating from supermassive black holes at the centers of distant galaxies. Since we don’t know what that even means, we’re certain she’s pretty smart and could most assuredly gotten in somewhere else.
Question 11-Aren’t all HBCUs the same?
Answer: No! There are urban HBCUs like Morgan State and rural HBCUs like Tuskegee. There are community colleges like Gadsden State, liberal arts institutions like Claflin, and doctoral research universities like Howard. There are medical schools like Meharry, religious institutions like Oakwood, male-only institutions like Morehouse and female-only institutions like Spelman and Bennett. So there are a diversity of schools one can chose from that fits their needs.
Question 12-There are only five good HBCUs anyway, right?
Answer: False! Each institution has its signature programs and strengths. A person must find a school that fits their particular needs and strengths.
Question 13-Are HBCU campuses safe?
Answer: Yes! However, like all campuses, HBCUs have to confront issues, related to alcohol and drug use, rape, etc. Many campuses including private HBCUs have begun to convert their campus safety departments into police departments on campus.
Question 14-I hear that registration lines at HBCUs are long. Is this true?
Answer: It is true that many HBCUs have had troubles with integrating technology to enhance the registration and enrollment process. However, that is quickly changing and many institutions have implemented One-Stop processes where the departments related to registration have been centralized. And most issues related to registration can be addressed online or via phone. Worst case scenario, you’ll learn some useful coping tools, like utilizing your networks, befriending helpful staff, and those all-important life skills, persistence and patience.
Question 15-Sure successful Black people came from HBCUs back in the day. But what about now?
Answer: Some of the recent HBCU graduates that are making a difference include: gospel artist Mandisa (Fisk University), actress Keisha Pullman Knight (Spelman College), senior editor of Eboni.com Jamilah Lameiux (Howard University), NBA broadcast analyst Stephanie Ready (Coppin State University), Olympic gold medalists Francena McCorory (Hampton) and Chris Brown (Norfolk State University), television personality Terrence J (North Carolina A & T State University), justice writer at Daily Kos Shaun King (Morehouse College), general assignment reporter for KMOV-TV the CBS affiliated station in St. Louis, Missouri Brittany Noble-Jones (Alcorn State University), Howard Law School student Madison Gibbs is 2015 Miss Black USA (North Carolina A & T State University), Kierno Mayo (Hampton), artist and cultural architect of Because of Them We Can Eunique Jones Gibson (Bowie State University) and Dream Defenders executive editor Philip Agnew (Florida A & M University).
Question 16-Aren’t HBCUs racist?
Answer: No! HBCUs have never held discriminatory policies which excluded faculty, staff, or students of another race to attend their schools. In fact, many private HBCUs were founded in co-operation with whites and more than a few of them–including Fisk, Howard, Spelman and Morehouse–are named after their white benefactors too!
Question 17- Will most HBCUs be here 20 years from now?
Answer: We sure hope so. The unique repository of black culture that they serve as, cannot be replaced. No other institutional type has an expressed mission to serve black college students. And as someone has said, “If HBCUs were not here we would have to create them.”
Question 18- Aren’t HBCUs just good for marching bands?
Answer: Although marching bands are great advertisements and provide great public relations exposure for our HBCUs it is not their most significant contribution. HBCUs are a strong set of academic institutions that provide high quality education to their students.
Question 19-Are all HBCUs like Hillman on a different world?
Answer: Yes and no! Yes, because of the fact that although Hillman was a fictional school it represented the general social culture that can be found at HBCUs. No, because there are various types of HBCUs that have different and diverse academic, athletic, religious, and secular campus cultures.
Question 20-Are black Greek-lettered fraternity and sororities better at HBCUs than at PWIs?
Answer: No, however six of the nine national pan-hellenic councils were founded at HBCUs. Because the aforementioned response is the politically correct answer, we think it important to note that campus culture shapes the black Greek experience and HBCU campuses are extraordinarily special places.
Question 21-I got my black experience at home, so why do I need to go to an HBCU?
Answer: No one is suggesting that all high school graduates must go to an HBCU. However, HBCUs provide supportive academic and living environments where students can grow and exceed in various aspects of their lives in an environments that affirms blackness and offers plenty of examples of black achievement. We think that the ability of HBCUs to do so, is something special and it may be right for you.
Question 22- Why should I go to an HBCU if they have such poor retention and graduation rates?
Answer: Although some schools have less than stellar retention and graduation rates. Institutions such as Wilberforce, Tougaloo, Elizabeth City State, and Winston Salem State have strong retention rates. If a person stays focused and diligent they can perform well at any of these institutions. Poor retention rates at HBCUs most often reflect that they traditionally serve first-generation, minority students who face socio-economic challenges that students at many other types of institutions of higher education do not typically face in such large numbers.
What questions are you asked that you need help answering? Ask us in the comments section.
Oakwood University alumnus Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr. is the managing editor of The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture (HBCUR+C). Dr. Freeman is associate professor of higher education at the University of Idaho. He is a former National Holmes Scholar, a certified faculty developer through the Learning Resources Network, and an affiliate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His research investigates the challenges facing higher education administration programs, specifically, higher education as a field of study and the university presidency. Dr. Freeman has published numerous journal articles and is the lead editor of Advancing Higher Education as a Field of Study: In Quest of Doctoral Degree Guidelines which received the 2015 Auburn University Graduate School “Book of the Year” Award. He also was recently named to the Board of Directors of the American Association of University Administrators and was honored with the “2015 Emergent Leader of the Year” award by the same professional society. He serves on multiple academic journal editorial and review boards, including serving as the founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education.
A member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is a graduate of the historic Fisk University ’03. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Vanderbilt University. She also holds a master of education degree in curriculum and instruction from Tennessee State University, ’14, where she formerly taught in the department of history, geography and political science. A professional historian and passionate HBCU advocate, she is editor-in-chief of the forthcoming The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. She is also a regular contributor to HBCU Digest, is a co-host of Black Docs radio show, and offers a wide-range of expertise on multiple topics including history, culture, education, black fraternity and sorority life and of course HBCUs. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian, visit her website at http://www.CrystaldeGregory.com, or contact her via email at cadegregory@HBCUstory.com.