HBCUs Aren't Designed to Support Adult Learners

The United Negro College Fund is embarking on an ambitious goal to re-enroll 4,000 former students from historically Black colleges and universities who stopped out before earning a degree.

The concept, coach older and working students back into college life with intentional coaching on the intricacies of enrollment and course engagement.

The coaches will be provided by InsideTrack, a nonprofit organization that helps colleges and universities increase student enrollment, college completion and career readiness. Ruth White, president of the organization, said InsideTrack plans to take a “holistic” approach with the HBCU cohort. Coaches will guide students through the complexities of re-enrollment and financial aid and help them chart out academic plans to complete the remainder of the credits they need to graduate, she said. Coaches can also help students navigate a host of other issues, such as personal finances, health care and childcare — “all the challenges that we face in daily life that could stop someone from returning to school,” she said.

HBCUs are embarking on an aggressive approach to recruiting non-traditional students who are typically over the age of 25, have some industrial experience, and require resources to help avoid the typical college completion pitfalls of housing and food insecurity that can block younger students.

Other institutions and systems have been taking this approach for the better part of a decade so it is good that Black institutions realize the urgency of the required strategy to combat plummeting enrollment rates among recent high school graduates and hardships creating during the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even within the best-laid plans, there are landmines for which institutions should prepare and for which HBCUs don’t always easily provide.

HBCU culture, from inception to the present day is steeped in three core values; religiosity, respectability, and revolution. Students are taught in covert and overt ways that success on campus requires faith in God, the ability to code-switch, and the capacity to use these two assets in a direct clash against white supremacy beyond HBCU borders.

That works well for students between the ages of 17 and 24 who do not pause in between their high school and college careers. They come of age on an HBCU campus learning to expect to discover themselves in very intimate ways through the crossfire of classroom and dorm room discussion, through the joys of campus social life, and enveloped by the mentoring of faculty, staff, and administrators.

That doesn’t happen for older students whose lives and perspectives are shaped by paying bills, military service, parenthood, incarceration, or other real-life scenarios that most younger HBCU students have yet to begin to comprehend in personal ways. These adult learners also require that same crossfire, social joy, and mentoring provided to traditional undergraduates, but are often left yearning for it and left without answers on how to forge it for themselves.

Most HBCU campus activities are and have always been designed to construct engagement and retention for residential teenagers and early twenty-somethings, not for grown working adults. What is the picture of an HBCU experience for someone who can’t attend weeknight basketball home games and parties, who works on the weekends, or who can’t afford tickets to the homecoming comedy show?

Who mentors the 40-year-old who wants to earn an undergraduate degree and feels out of touch with the younger people in his class, receives no guidance from the faculty teaching the course and, because he attends school at night, cannot easily talk to a counselor or campus-based advisor about these insecurities?

And it is not just non-traditional learners. HBCUs are still working to meld long-held traditions with the social and financial mandate to better embrace LGBTQ and international students. If we’re being very honest, HBCUs can’t even get there when they still are in a serious fight on how to make Black students who are republican or who are into alternative cultures feel good about themselves on campus.

HBCUs are very serious about stabilizing enrollment over the next five years because they know they are in for a rough ride. But if they can’t recognize obstacles facing students for whom HBCU cultural rituals and unspoken rules weren’t written, it’ll be heartbreaking all around when students working so hard to come back to school find new reasons and easier pathways to leave again.