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 in—traditional 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?