How HBCUs are proving their worth in a wounded enrollment landscape

How HBCUs are proving their worth in a wounded enrollment landscape

Historically Black Colleges and Universities are thriving on stability and relevance in uncertain times

Article by Patrick Isitt

Edited by Kara Golembeski

26 February 2021

“This is not new. HBCUs are not new, the culture is not new, the tradition is not new. It has been this way since the beginning, but people are now beginning to see it on a wider scale,” begins Ilahi, whose enthusiasm to discuss life at one of America’s most prestigious and historic universities counterbalances the Zoom fatigue that has inevitably set in after a day of virtual lectures and labs.

Ilahi is a junior biology major and chemistry minor at Howard University, one of 107 institutions in the United States to be identified by the US Department of Education as a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). 

Last month enrollment figures from the fall semester were the talk of the higher education sector in the US, and subsequently the media. The numbers were intraditional universities and colleges saw a decline in enrollment. It wasn’t the case for every institution and those that were affected had only seen a small drop, but for admissions teams and institutions across the country, these small margins can have a lasting impact.

The challenge of COVID-19

It’s been a challenging year for the higher education sector. Travel restrictions have limited international student recruitment efforts, campus safety concerns have heightened and so too have deferral requests. But comparisons were drawn with the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, many of whom are sitting on an enrollment perch looking down on a depleted sector.

And so, the focus shifted from the drop in enrollment at traditional institutions across the US to the factors behind Howard University’s 7% increase in undergraduates, or Bowie State University’s second-highest year on record. But as those who are positioned closer to HBCUs will tell you, this standard of excellence is not uncommon to these institutions. It is perhaps just now that much of the global higher education sector is waking up to the noise they’ve been making in the shadows.

So why is it that institutions that have educated black Americans since the end of the Civil War are now at the forefront of the conversation? Why has it taken a global pandemic, a year of heightened discussion around social justice and a new Vice President entirely proud of her Howard heritage to shine the spotlight on black excellence?

The evolution of HBCUs

“The long-standing tradition and work of Historically Black Colleges was birthed out of the significant need to educate newly freed slaves, and to get them prepared to operate efficiently and become citizens with full rights and liberties in the American democracy,” explains Anthony E. Jones, Assistant Vice-President of Enrollment Management at Howard University. 

Although the term “HBCU” wasn’t formalized until 1965 when Lyndon B. Johnson did so as part of the Higher Education Act, the education of African Americans started as early as 1837 when Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was first founded. First known as the African Institute, the school sought to provide black Americans with the skills required to operate in the economy.

“Now we find ourselves in 2021, and the mission and the work of those schools has not changed,” continues Jones. “They are still being as innovative as possible to be relevant for their current times and for their current students. They’re still meeting that need that the students have to feel connected to something larger than themselves.”

He visualizes the HBCU story in the form of two tracks that, although moved in the same direction since the creation of Historically Black Colleges, have started to come together in the last few years.

On one track sits the aforementioned history, mission and significance of education for black Americans. And track two? “Well, ultimately the evolution of the world and its perception of historically black colleges,” says Jones.

From landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s through to the subsequent changes brought about by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (plus other civil rights legislation) decades later, the perception of HBCUs began to shift, and with it the narrative of black excellence.

“HBCUs became a bastion for diverse talent,” says Jones. Meanwhile on that first track, the colleges and universities themselves continued to evolve and produce pools of graduates at a time of social revolution in the US.

howard student

Howard University students in a women’s dorm (1936 – 1937)

Building a legacy

It was around that time, off the back of those pivotal moments for black American civil rights and heightened by a reform of pop culture in the country, that HBCUs were beginning to represent a favorable option to students seeking a community that not only celebrated excellence, but also made them feel a part of a legacy.

“I was hooked from day one,” says Dr. Quincy Paden, Principal at Holy Trinity High School in Chicago and Morehouse College alumnus. Since graduating in the late 1990s, he has maintained an interest in the work of HBCUs and the culture that fills their campuses. 

“Hearing about the history at Morehouse, about what has happened on that very campuson that groundmade me feel a kind of energy,” recalls Dr. Paden, drifting back to his first days at college in the late-summer Georgia heat as a young adult.

After narrowly missing out on a position in the first round of applicants, he attended a day purpose-built for prospectsat which point, he says, he was sold on the tradition and the stories of current students. They made him feel like he would be a part of something bigger.

“It wasn’t even just the civil rights stories, I was even hooked by the popular things that had taken place. To know that Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee had been there, or the fact Mohammed Ali fought a fight in our gym when his boxing license was suspended by the US government was an incredible feeling.

The best way I can sum up my experience at Morehouse is to tell you that, in the four years that I was there, I never had a bad day. Every day was truly a blessingthat includes days when there was somebody big on campus, the days I learned, and the days when it was raining cats and dogs and I was in the dorm all day just talking with my friends.”

Having attended two predominantly white institutions in his years after Morehouse College, Dr. Paden believes that the tradition at HBCUs is a separating factor. From an orientation that was 11 days long right through to the valuable life experiences he gained over the four years, tradition sat at the heart of Morehouse culture. Is that still the case for HBCUs over 20 years later?

“It’s a grand day,” laughs Ilahi. Though not the near-two-week event described by Dr. Paden, Ilahi says that orientation is a big deal simply because of how crucial the culture is to the students. Giving them that exposure to the campus and the institutional legacy in their first few days provides not only a stepping stone for their involvement in the HBCU culture, but also a platform to excel as an individual.

Most HBCU stories reflect that family legacy is a major factor in many students’ decision to apply, but HBCUs also grant the opportunity to build new traditions.

As an upstate New York resident, HBCUs were not initially on the radar for Ilahi when she was in high school. Her first choice had been NYU, but one significant, eye-opening conversation in the winter of her senior year brought Howard into the picture—and, she’ll be the first to tell you, she’s never looked back.

“I personally did not come from a legacy family,” she says. “I’m a first generation college student, and nobody in my family attended an HBCU. But I will say the legacy culture has inspired me so much that I want to continue it.”

“I already told my mom that my kids have to go to an HBCU, even if it’s just for a year or a semester. I want them to have the option to have that experience, because it has been so life-altering for me.”

Majority culture

It’s clear, then, that legacy is not only representative of HBCU experiences of the past, but also features in their future. It’s something that at its very core is entirely organic, and seems almost impossible to replicate.

It’s this very fact thatalongside incidents of racial conflict at predominantly white institutions over timehas prompted an increasing number of applications to the safe environment of HBCUs.

“A lot of high-ranking athletes have decided to decommit from certain PWIs to attend HBCUs, and I feel like that has also contributed to some of the enrollment numbers we’re seeing. People are thinking that maybe they should prioritize a  space that’s for them,” says Ilahi.

Beyond what’s internal to the HBCU campus culture and the tradition that surrounds it, there is something to be said about the significance of the change in environment. It’s a transition, for many, from one of a minority within a majority, to feeling a part of the latter as a student at these institutions. 

“You may not have been able to be the class president at your high school because of the majority culture that you had to fight to be a part of. But in the HBCU environment you can be that and more if you choose, because of the affinity and the connection that you have there,” explains Jones.

Of course there are other cases to make for the long-standing success of Historically Black Colleges; the reduced tuition and optional scholarships offered by many, for example. But there are also many myths associated with HBCUs that the institutions themselves have worked hard to bust.

They have long been tied to the suggestion that their alumni are in some sense less worthy of academic merit, or unable to compete for the highest positions in the “real world.” Vice President Kamala Harris is the most recent example of the proven results that HBCUs showcase, but she’s not the only one. There were many examples before her, and there will be many after.

“When you look at the percentage of lawyers, judges, doctors, engineersa high percentage of them across the nation have graduated from black colleges. When you look at the entertainment world, a number of individuals there have done phenomenally in their careers,” says Jones.

howard universityHoward University

Funding success

So why does that perception exist? Is reduced tuition an indication of a lower quality of education? Far from it. The fact of the matter is that these institutions don’t typically charge what they could, or as Jones suggests, “what they should.”

“That’s because the families that we are committed to serving often need our institutions to understand their economic plight. HBCUs have to be very creative around budgeting, and very innovative in knowing how to do more with less. You need to do what you can to get funders to come to the table and provide the funding that you need.”

According to Jones, the era we’re in now encourages many donors to be a part of the success that HBCUs have. He also says that a lot of fundraising is local, despite press attention often focusing on the “big gifts.” It’s this local funding that allows Historically Black Colleges and Universities to offer reduced tuition and to provide scholarships through organizations such as the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

Stability in uncertain times

In 2021, it appears the two tracks are now very much intertwined, or “landing in the same station,” according to Jones. Thriving in an era where social media provides a pedestal for both black excellence and social justice, HBCUs have transcended their own campus communities to a space where the higher education sector in the US as a whole is able to acknowledge their achievements.

So the question has shifted. It’s not so much about the reasons behind the enrollment figures, but about the root of attention HBCUs are receiving at this juncture. 

Underpinning the enrollment success is a system of core beliefs and student support that enables these institutions to continue to promote their success and attract the funding required for steady, adaptable growth.

Ultimately, it’s stability that HBCUs are benefitting from. In a time where many are facing uncertainty, both in regards to the pandemic and also with an eye on the evolving political environment, the community, safety and platform for excellence sit at the heart of these institutions and drive them forward toward success.


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