Posted on February 17, 2011

The HBCU Debate: Are Black Colleges & Universities Still Needed?

Robin White Goode, Black Enterprise, February 15, 2011

{snip} Although most have a majority Black student body, the faculty at many HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] is strikingly diverse, sometimes more than 50% non-Black. Moreover, these institutions have never discriminated on the basis of race.

But, in an age of increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S., do we still need HBCUs?

Chancellor Charlie Nelms of North Carolina Central University [4] in Durham says yes. “HBCUs provide a culturally affirming, psychologically supportive environment. Students don’t have to prove they belong here.” NCCU provides its students “intentional, intrusive, focused” academic assistance, says Nelms.

HBCUs represent about 3% of colleges in the U.S. but enroll 12% of all Black college students and produce 23% of all Black college graduates. Remarkably, this small group of colleges confers 40% of all STEM degrees and 60% of all engineering degrees earned by Black students. They also educate half of the country’s Black teachers and 40% of all Black health professionals. And they do this with much less funding support than that of traditionally White institutions.

Solange Sayers, a graduating senior at Grambling State University [5]in Grambling, Louisiana, has been very happy with her HBCU experience. Originally from St. Lucia, Sayers was elected Miss Grambling last year. {snip}

One challenge she did encounter at Grambling was the school’s unpreparedness for the influx of internationals that came on campus in 2006–500 students from Africa, Belize, Haiti, Nepal, and the West Indies. “Even dealing with our accents proved trying,” recalls Sayers. {snip}

Tyron Young, a senior at Morehouse College [6]in Atlanta, initially considered attending the University of Maryland but changed his mind after talking with the assistant principal at his high school, a charter school in Baltimore called National Academy. “The idea of attending a Black school appealed to me,” Young says. “I’ve had experiences here I would never have had anywhere else–singing backup for Aretha Franklin and on a soundtrack for Spike Lee, for example.” Young, who plans to teach, also has received a Bill and Camille Cosby scholarship and talks with Bill Cosby personally.

Young grew up in Baltimore surrounded by African Americans and attended schools that were all Black, so for college he wanted the comfort and familiarity of a majority Black student body with which he would share certain commonalities. Yet, he enjoys working with all kinds of people: He is now working with a racially diverse group to establish a student mentoring program in Washington, D.C.

Marc Lamont Hill [7], host of Black Enterprise’s Our World television show and Associate Professor of Education at Columbia University Teachers College, says HBCUs must be supported, especially because of the way they value their students and work to increase their students’ confidence. But he says there are problems the schools must address. An issue Hill sees as particularly regressive is the cultural conservatism that he says pervades all HBCUs: for example, rules forbidding choices like dreadlocks or braids or mandating attendance at chapel services. “These schools have only a veneer of progressivism,” he says. “Many don’t even have African American studies departments, and many are anti-gay.”


In spite of the nurturing HBCUs provide their students, their graduation rates are lower (about 38%) than that of Black students who attend traditionally White schools (about 46%). But this may be more a reflection of the student body HBCUs serve, one that is typically less affluent (65% of HBCU students are eligible for Pell Grants [9]), often less prepared academically, and often first generation college students. And HBCUs typically have tiny endowments; others struggle with debt. So obtaining resources that could help struggling students avoid dropping out isn’t always an option.

Nelms points out, however, that the variation among HBCUs is actually greater than that between HBCUs and traditionally White institutions. Spelman College [10], for example, has an outstanding graduation rate of 80%–one of the highest in the nation–with 40% of its students Pell Grant eligible.


According to a report released in December, “The Educational Effectiveness of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” {snip} By the 1990s, however, there was a 20% decline in the relative wages of HBCU grads compared with Black students who graduated from non-HBCUs, although SAT scores of students accepted into HBCUs had also risen during that same period.