HBCUs Remain Producers of Black Excellence Across Disciplines

The nation’s inflamed racial tensions have coincided with record-breaking increases in enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In 2017, North Carolina A&T State University recorded its largest student population ever, and the number of first-time applicants to Spelman College increased by the thousands in a single year. HBCU grads have consistently confirmed the necessity of these establishments by remaining at the forefront of the Black intellectual elite.

However, critics of HBCUs claim that those institutions are outdated, citing the end of racial segregation and proliferating the myth of the “post racial society.” HBCUs were created to provide opportunities for Black people to gain access to quality higher education and as race relations worsen, the need for secure locations for young, Black intellectuals to pursue higher education has only increased. Even a brief analysis of the comparative benefits of HBCUs is enough to defend the modern-day existence of these institutions.

HBCUs are positive for the American workforce and Black communities.

While HBCUs account for just 4 percent of American colleges and universities, they produce 21 percent of the nation’s Black graduates, 50 percent of America’s Black public school teachers and lawyers, and 80 percent of the country’s Black judges. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, HBCUs are responsible for producing over one-third of all Black PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. HBCUs account for the top 10 producers of undergraduates who eventually earn doctorates in science and engineering. HBCUs also supply a disproportionately large share of medical school applicants; Howard University and Xavier University are HBCUs and the top two producers of Black physicians. Overall, Black students at HBCUs are more likely to graduate in six years, when compared to Black students at predominantly white institutions (PWIs).

The advantages of an HBCU experience extend beyond education-related statistics. A Purdue-Gallup University study concluded that HBCU students are more likely to report feeling supported by their peers throughout their matriculation. In addition, HBCU students report better financial, social, and physical well-being compared to their Black counterparts at PWIs. HBCU students were also more likely to report that their professors cared about them, provided support, and encouraged them to pursue career and professional goals. These students were also more likely to be involved with internships, long-term projects, and extracurricular activities.

HBCUs are the educational, and intellectual lifeline of the Black community, yet many of these institutions are drowning. Alvin J. Schexnider, former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University, said many HBCUs are in an economic “death spiral.” HBCUs are especially vulnerable to financial catastrophe; they were hardest hit by the recession and more likely to be underfunded, despite typically taking on larger financial burdens by committing to serve a large number of students with greater financial need. In addition, HBCU endowments are a fraction of those at many PWIs. None of the 90 United States institutions with endowments over $1 billion are HBCUs. On a list ranking university endowments, you won’t find a single HBCU until No. 160 — Howard University, which boasts an endowment of $578 million. That’s just 2 percent of Harvard University’s startling $35.6 billion endowment.

Some HBCUs have found unconventional ways to stay afloat in the face of an uncertain future. Fisk University quietly sold two valuable pieces of art in 2010, one of which sold for a six-figure dollar amount, and Bennett College announced in early 2019 that its #StandWithBennett Campaign raised over $8 million, which allowed the school to restore its accreditation.

However, many HBCUs have already lost the battle to maintain accreditation or financial stability, and subsequently closed their doors. In the last 35 years, five HBCUs have lost accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. At least 15 Black colleges, and five Black medical schools have closed.

The endangered status of HBCUs threatens more than just Black intellectual mobility. These institutions have served as sanctuaries for young, Black talent and ground zero for social change. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee first took form at Shaw University; Xavier University students housed Freedom Riders despite the threat of retaliation in 1961; the Greensboro Four of North Carolina A&T staged a sit-in protest against segregation and sparked a nationwide movement of civil disobedience coordinated by HBCUs across the country. As police interactions with civilians become increasingly violent, as the number of hate groups reaches an all-time-high, in Trump’s America, HBCUs remain a vehicle for the pursuit of social equality.

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.