Essay on why historically black colleges matter because they serve black students

Headlines announce, “Historically Black Colleges are Becoming More White,” “diversification” is affecting HBCUs and ask “White Students At Black Colleges: What Does it Mean for HBCUs?” Clearly, many journalists think that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are becoming “less black.” Questions are being raised about the implications — positive, negative, or otherwise — for these longstanding institutions. That’s the great news.

The problem is that such claims are largely false, and they feed popular misunderstandings of the role of HBCUs in the 21st century. The data are clear: while a small handful of HBCUs experienced a slight increase in non-black enrollment over the last decade, most HBCUs did not. In a re-segregating society, where race and economic class matter more than ever and contemporary accounts from students of color reveal chilly racial climates at predominantly white universities across the country, the future of HBCUs is most important for black Americans. Many of these students rightly view HBCUs as one of the few remaining safe spaces for black intellectual and personal development. 

There are 100 HBCUs in the United States, and over 80 percent of them are four-year colleges and universities. A tiny number, however, make most of the news — think Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, Howard and Florida A&M Universities. Despite representing only 3 percent of all U.S. higher education institutions, HBCUs enroll approximately 9 percent of all black undergraduates in higher education today, including almost 11 percent of all black students attending bachelor’s degree-granting institutions.

That’s the real story. But journalists are distracted by the idea that non-black students also attend HBCUs, because that story seems to fuel the narrative of a post-racial movement in America and leads the public to believe that HBCUs are in danger of losing the unique culture that produces the “HBCU experience.”

The fact is that between 2000 and 2010, there were as many non-black students enrolled at 10 HBCUs (mostly community colleges) as were enrolled at all other four-year HBCUs combined. Fully 50 percent of all non-black students at all HBCUs attended just those 10 colleges and universities. But four-year HBCUs experienced no increase in non-black enrollment during the 2000s. In fact, three out of four public HBCUs and many HBCUs with the largest shares of non-black enrollment experienced significant decreases in non-black enrollment between 2000-2010. In other words, most HBCUs are becoming more, not less, segregated.

These facts have been presented before, yet ignored. In 2005, the Journal for Blacks in Higher Education released a report titled, The Persisting Myth That the Black Colleges Are Becoming Whiter, which received very little attention. Contrary to what today’s headlines suggest, the facts have not changed much since 2005.

It is not only important to know that most HBCU student bodies are not becoming less black, but to understand why that is OK. Even though the overwhelming majority of black college students are enrolled at predominantly white institutions, HBCUs continue to pull their (disproportionate) weight and remain the top producers of black graduates in many disciplines. They are able to produce such results because of their explicit commitment to educating black students in nurturing and supportive environments — facts that are missed on state and federal policymakers who still largely ignore and neglect HBCUs when developing higher education policies.

For examples of this, look no further than recent policies that had detrimental consequences for HBCUs, such as the change in federal Parent PLUS loans that cost many HBCUs millions of dollars in funding through steep and sudden declines in student enrollment. Many HBCUs must already deal with being persistently and significantly underfunded compared to predominantly white universities in their state, so policy changes that may be financially inconsequential to larger state institutions have far different implications on HBCU campuses. Another more extreme, yet very real, example of the genuine disinterest for HBCUs is the constant efforts of policymakers to simply get rid of HBCUs. In 2014, North Carolina legislators proposed shutting down Elizabeth City State University because it is “small” and “unprofitable,” even though it has consistently been a top performer when it comes to graduation rates among HBCUs across the country (and because that’s what public universities are supposed to be: profitable, right? Insert sarcasm.). Even the new College Scorecard ratings system proposed by the federal government has received criticism from the HBCU community for using metrics that inherently disadvantage these institutions.

These are just a few examples out of many, but it demonstrates that these attacks on HBCUs are not relics of history. Policymakers continue to regularly demonstrate their apparent disregard for HBCUs and channel their support — both financial and otherwise — to larger, predominantly white flagships despite the accomplishments of HBCUs. So until there is evidence that equitable outcomes are being achieved when it comes to access and success for black students more broadly, and until more students of color are reporting positive experiences with regard to race on predominantly white campuses, HBCUs should and will remain critical support systems for black intellectual development in the U.S. higher education system.


C. Rob Shorette II is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University, a former HBCU presidential aide, and a graduate of Florida A&M University. He is also the co-editor, along with Robert Palmer and Marybeth Gasman, of a forthcoming monograph in New Directions in Higher Education, Exploring Diversity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Implications for Policy and Practice.


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