Hampton University President William Harvey presented at Yale University earlier this month about the continuing value of historically black colleges and universities in educating the nation’s growing minority population.
Socio-economically, politically and geographically, Dr. Harvey said, it only made since that a growing number of black and Latino students have access to the educators and perspectives most likely to mirror their lives outside of the classroom, and to better inspire their success within it.
“When I began teaching in 1965, it was a common fact that black students were taught by black teachers who lived and worked in the black community,” he said. “These teachers were often the pillars of the community and well respected by all during this time. A majority of these teachers attended HBCUs because that was primarily the only option that we had. Now ladies and gentlemen that landscape has changed.”
The landscape has changed more than we could have realized. Not just because more black students are choosing predominantly white institutions, not because they are offered more money or because there is a grand reversal of racial pride amongst most black Americans. It is because higher education is a cauldron of swapping and stealing ideas from other individuals and institutions, and in this swirling culture of figuring out how to attract and retain more students, how to get them jobs and cajole them into giving money back to their alma maters once they reach the arc of their professional and personal lives, we stole the wrong institutional concepts from them, and they stole the exact right ones from us.
HBCUs learned from PWIs that in order to succeed, our campuses must have the finest facilities, successful sports teams and money to support students through from matriculation to graduation. All of these things are true, but what we didn’t realize is that it takes political goodwill and capital to make those things come true; elements of which black folks have always held in modest number, but never enough to create transformational change for communities and institutions.
But what white schools have learned and are beginning to execute perfectly, is the sacred art of welcoming and refining lower-income and underrepresented minorities into spaces of higher learning. And that is what is costing HBCUs enrollment, brain trust and future wealth.
While so many HBCUs have gone into extreme debt, constructing student centers, dormitories, libraries and football stadiums in the race to attract more students and tuition revenue, PWIs doubled-down on raising more scholarship dollars to attract those same students. They have always outgunned us in political capital, facilities and athletics; but what they didn’t have was the financial and cultural commitment to educating the poor. For hundreds of years, we cornered that market.
Now that an increasing percentage of the nation is poor, and higher education has been priced out of everyone’s price range, including the black middle class, the PWI strategy is to augment tuition discounting and scholarship awarding with new outreach to black communities; the same work HBCUs have always done, but with far less traction in mass media and state legislative hallways.
Look at UCLA and its institutional integration into Los Angeles schools and districts. Is it any wonder that it is the first American college to receive 100,000 applications? It’s not a number built on a surge in top-achieving or wealthy students; it’s poor students nationwide expressing interest in a school that somehow, has made inroads with them.
Yep, the same UCLA where black students just a few years ago said “we aren’t taking this BS anymore.”
Three years ago, Georgetown University’s Center for Education & the Workforce revealed that more high-achieving African American students were enrolling in schools that undermatched their potential with a lack of learning and funding resources and low-admission standards (i.e., community colleges and HBCUs).
This created a growing culture where white students were graduating at higher rates, getting into graduate school at higher rates, and making more money than black students; a phenomenon covered heavily by media outlets and think tanks.
- The Share of Black Students at Top Universities Has Been Stagnant for 20 Years
- Closed Doors: Black and Latino Students Are Excluded from Top Public Universities
Now, colleges and universities nationwide have specific programs dedicated to attracting and retaining black students, all constructed around the HBCU mission of intrusive mentoring, close-knit nurturing and intense academic guidance. Some of the nation’s top research universities, more than 30, have formed a consortium to recruit black and Latino students away from community colleges, for-profit schools and HBCUs — all in the name of eradicating poverty and building diversity.
Spelman College, predictably so, is the only HBCU in the consortium. Raise your hand if you knew such a consortium even existed. Raise your hand if you were offended because yesterday I said Grambling State winning the Celebration Bowl would not be enough to save the school.
Not every HBCU is in trouble. Many of them have dynamic leaders at the helm with entrepreneurial mindsets and student-centered approaches to success. But if you think we’re the only ones who recognize that, look around.
Our own innovation in higher education is being used against us. New realities in how financial and political capital will be given to HBCUs is setting in. And because it’s almost Christmas, or because the parade hasn’t started for the Celebration Bowl, or because its not typical for black folks and black institutions to be called out public for our struggles, everyone is missing the bigger picture.
Soon, we won’t have a picture. We’ll only have memories, and ourselves to blame for it.