Four Critical Factors for HBCU Success in the 21st Century

This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to several of our Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) member-school campuses, meeting with leaders and stakeholders about what makes HBCUs extraordinary, and what limits them from doing even more for students and their communities. As president & CEO of TMCF, it is important to me to stay connected to our students and our campuses.

While each of our 47 publically-supported schools has their individual needs and circumstances there is a commonality of culture, value, and mission that binds them all together. Our HBCUs are the institutional embodiment of democracy in action; opportunity granted for all people without favor for or discretion against a socioeconomic background or political preference.

Many of the degree programs and areas of high-caliber professional development at HBCUs directly counter many of the intractable problems faced by our country, and they do so with an abundance of ingenuity and enthusiasm, and dramatically less in the way of funding, facilities, and technology.

HBCUs are leading institutions in the production of registered nurses, scientists and engineers, secondary teachers and social workers. When we think about what our country needs most, and the people who will need to have the pertinent skills to meet those needs, companies need to look no further than our public HBCUs for diverse talent. HBCUs provide quality career training at affordable price points and in nurturing environments, which encourage completion and success.

Most advocates and observers are fully aware of the work HBCUs do to contribute greatly to a host of different sectors. But what prohibits this service from being universally recognized inside and outside of higher education circles?

During my inaugural year here at TMCF, I have focused on leadership and talent development, strategic partnerships, HBCU sustainability, and innovation. Here are four key themes that I shared with our campus leadership worth sharing:

Students are an important voice in institutional strategic planning – Students are the customers of the HBCU experience, but often feel that they are a forgotten stakeholder in how programmatic development, fundraising, athletic oversight, and campus life are developed. The more responsibility they bare in these areas, the more committed they will be to seeing their success.

Faculty must recognize their role as institutional catalysts for success – Professors are responsible for training up and inspiring our students, but the experience they provide is also a major factor in cultivating philanthropic culture and establishing research and outreach brands beyond our campus borders.

Board members must lead by example – A culture of giving, collaboration and support begin with regents and trustees mastering these ideas both publicly and privately. Leaders of the campus set the tenor for what the campus does, and what it will do into the future.

Bipartisan legislative engagement is key to HBCU survival – Regardless of partisan control or personal political preference, working with lawmakers and legislative appointees in a bipartisan fashion is the only way HBCUs can establish their priorities for capital planning, academic expansion, and increasing affordability for students.

We have to think long-term. None of these areas can possibly be improved overnight. They all require communication and collaboration on every campus, with every stakeholder group fully bought in to do their part in strengthening our campuses. We’ve seen in recent years how passion and strategic planning can converge to help campuses thrive in serious ways.

For example, Virginia State University is among Virginia’s leaders in the enrollment and retention of first-year, first-time in-state students. North Carolina A&T State University, the nation’s largest four-year public institution with more than 12,000 students, exceeded more than $60 million in sponsored research in 2017, a historic mark in the HBCU sector. In terms of new strategic partnerships, we have seen companies like The Boeing Company, Honda, and Strada Education Network invest millions in TMCF for our programmatic, capacity building and direct student scholarship work. This year alone, TMCF has awarded more than $3.5M in student scholarships to help those deserving students pay for college.

From record enrollment to historic fundraising gains and research output, HBCUs across this country are exceeding their own standards in proving their worth. When communities and individuals are all in for success, excellence is not a lofty wish, but a realistic destination. Meeting with our HBCU students, faculty and administrations energize me to keep working every day to make our Black College Community stronger so that we can remain competitive, and an attractive investment and source for talent in the 21st century.

Harry L. Williams is the president & CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community. Before joining TMCF, he spent eight years as president of Delaware State University. Follow him on Twitter at @DrHLWilliams.

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