A Wave of Hispanic Students Reshapes a Historically Black College

Katherine Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 14, 2015

Cinco de Mayo is a low-key celebration at Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black institution that began in the late 1800s to educate freed slaves and their children.

But it has taken on a more personal significance for a growing number of students at this small, private institution where one in five students today is Hispanic.

On May 5, students mingled over tamales and nachos in an academic hall where a poster of Martin Luther King hung alongside pictures of mariachi dancers, Spanish-language newspapers, and an article about the changing ethnic mix of historically black colleges and universities.

Diversity has always been celebrated at the 105 public and private historically black campuses across the country, but it’s become an economic imperative today. Sagging enrollments and financial troubles have
prompted the colleges to court students who might never have been on their radar before.

Increases in Asian and international-student enrollment have helped make up for stagnant rates among white students at HBCUs.

But the biggest boost has been among Hispanic students, who are subtly changing the colleges where they’re concentrated. The changes have prompted soul-searching about what it means to be a historically black college today.

Such institutions were originally defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.”

Most have relatively small endowments and receive less money per student from their states, so they rely on specially allocated federal money to help educate underserved students.

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From 2010 to 2013, the percentage of black students enrolled dropped slightly, while the percentage of Hispanic students rose.

The shifts have been far more drastic in states like Texas, where the Hispanic population has seen rapid growth.

At Paul Quinn College, in Dallas, where the director of recruiting, Jessika Lara, is a Hispanic alumna, 13 percent of the class that entered in the fall of 2014 was Hispanic. That percentage shot up to 30 percent
for the class that will enter this fall. The new recruits are a significant boost for a college that was on the brink of collapse several years ago and has grown to just under 300 students today.

Similar demographic shifts are taking place at Huston-Tillotson. Over the last decade, the percentage of black students there has slid from 74 percent to 70 percent, while the percentage of Hispanic students has grown from 11 to 19 percent.

Students who stopped by to sample the Mexican cooking offered differing reflections on what the shift meant for their campus.

Porscha Jewell, a 24-year-old junior, said that while a more diverse student body would prepare students for life after college, it had its downside. “As a culture, we have our own identity, and we shouldn’t feel
bad about emphasizing that,” said Ms. Jewell, who is black. “When we’re trying to appeal to so many different people, it pulls us away from the ‘historically black’ part.”

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As Hispanic enrollments have grown, so have requests for clubs and classes that reflect that heritage, but progress has at times been slow.

Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, said she had interviewed about 800 students on historically black campuses over the last decade. Most of those she spoke with were comfortable with the increasing diversity on their campuses, but many alumni–particularly older ones–had their doubts, she said.

For HBCUs, though, broadening their reach is a matter of survival.

“Administrators realize there’s no way HBCUs are going to continue unless they engage Latino and Asian students in particular,” she said.

Some students and alumni feel threatened. Others question whether colleges like those should still be designated as HBCUs, which makes them eligible to share in hundreds of millions of federal dollars. Colleges don’t lose that designation when their demographics shift.

“Many students come to an HBCU for the unique cultural experience, part of which is to be in the majority for once in their life,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and chief executive of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports public HBCUs.

“I’ve heard some of the vitriol from alumni and students who come in and look around and say, ‘I came to an HBCU, and I look around, and once again I’m in the minority.'”

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