HBCUs Have the Answers American Colleges and Universities Seek
Updated: Mar 25
“When you can’t go anywhere else, you can always come home” – That was the indelible message Howard University, one of the nation’s Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU), instilled in the arriving undergraduate students. Such a message was delivered on my first day at Howard University’s College of Nursing. The faculty and staff began talking to us about our graduate degree – on the first day of our undergraduate study. Inherent in that message was the assumption that we would succeed, graduate, and continue our studies. There was zero space for the possibility that we would fail. One can’t imagine the impact that such a perception of students could and would have on their future, on their mental and physical health, their self-agency, and self-esteem.
Take a moment and contemplate the magnitude of the impact that racial and cultural affirmation and validation have on young African American/Black minds – minds that have been relentlessly subjected to invalidation, marginalization, exclusion, and negation in the American educational system. An then imagine arriving at a place where your race and culture is affirmed every day, all day; where the institution and its faculty consciously and subconsciously support your well-being without even having to think about it; where you are comfortable racially every day, all day; where the centrality and normativity of your race is so ingrained in the academy that it is neutral - invisible to the naked eye; where you are taught the valuable contributions your people have made to literature, science, technology, philosophy, fine and creative arts, and business and much more; where the way you speak is valued and common and considered the standard for communicating; where your natural physical characteristics are the standard of beauty, excellence, dignity and grace; where you represent the essence of goodness, virtuosity, integrity and industry.
While white children in America know this valuing and validating experience from the start their educational journey, African American/Black people may travel their entire formal educational journey without ever having such an experience unless they have the great fortune to study at an HBCU. My world changed when I began my educational journey at Howard University in Washington, DC. At Howard, our value was so ingrained in us that if we had colleagues who were slacking off, both students and professors would point out, “This is Howard, NOT Harvard” meaning we demand more, and you don’t have the luxury of mediocrity. Now the mantra is HU – You Know! – meaning what is expected of you and what is at stake here need not even be spoken. You know!
Colleges and universities across the nation are proclaiming enhanced racial consciousness and renewed commitments to social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. Educational reform efforts aimed at improving student success and closing the gap abound across the nation. Educators who want to be more equity minded and lead from a framework grounded in equity are up against enormous forces. They are working in the context of a universal construct of white supremacy – while not unique to what has come to be known as the United States of America, white supremacy is a pillar upon which this nation was founded, the government was established, and the constitution was created. (Stroud 2009) Equity minded educators are up against centuries of legally sanctioned white domination and supremacy – violence, brutality, cruelty, and subjugation of people based on a socially constructed hierarchized system of race. Predominantly white institutions (PWI) produce student outcomes and experiences that can be predicted by race – a clear manifestation of structural and systemic racism. Most of the systems are interconnected, representing virtually every societal institution– political, economic, religious, and educational.
In the wake of the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University, HBCUs have attracted renewed attention. And they should because HBCU’s have a documented history of successfully serving African American/Black students. Despite representing only 3 percent of American institutions of higher education, HBCUs produce 24% of African American/Black bachelor degree earners, and 32 percent of all African American/Black STEM related bachelor degree earners. HBCUs produce 50 percent of African American/Black teachers, 40 percent of African American/Black health professionals, 80 percent of African American/Black dentists and physicians, 80 percent of African American/Black judges, and 75 percent of African American/Black officers in the armed forces. (Saunders 2018)
As promised during his campaign, President Biden aims to increase funding for HBCUs. With the recent Presidential Executive Order-14041: White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity Through Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the nation is looking to HBCUs. The order addresses the complexity of accessing federal funding for HBCUs, and “…fosters public private partnerships to create academic research centers on HBCU campuses…and create pipelines for elementary students interested in attending an HBCU.” (Doherty 2021)
The California Community College Chancellor’s Office launched a pilot to “…explore the possibility of formalizing transfer pathway agreements between HBCU institutions and the California community college system using Associate Degrees for Transfer (ADTs) as the framework to support the agreements.” To build upon that work, a recent grant of $2.9 million (over 5 years) has been awarded to El Camino College to continue the transfer agreement project with HBCUs.
The nation and the state are on the right track in looking at the value of HBCUs and the necessary engagement to support the effort and learn the lessons. It is time to look to and learn from HBCU’s if an institution is truly interested in increasing black student success. The common narrative often articulated in PWI’s is that African American/Black students fail because they are underprepared, at risk, from homes that do not value education, from urban schools, didn’t have access to good high schools, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and lack motivation. Because most educational reform efforts have grown out of a deficit framework they focus on strategies to fix the student and their deficiencies. The counternarrative is that the institutions, faculty, and staff are the ones failing. Policies, practices, pedagogy and procedures are designed to disadvantage students of color and advantaged white students. From the perspective of the counternarrative, real solutions would be aimed at addressing the deficiencies and inabilities of the institution, its structure and systems that create and perpetuate the inequities in student outcomes and experiences that can be predicted by race. We know these institutions know how to serve, teach, graduate and transfer students because they are so consistently effective in serving, teaching graduating and transferring white students.
I recently attended a diversity coaching certification program at Howard University. Forty years after leaving Howard as a successful undergraduate, I arrived back at the University as an accomplished professional with decades of service and advanced degrees on my vitae. I arrived with a life’s worth of work and opportunity to support others—a life’s worth of work in service of something greater than myself. I arrived as the product of HBCU excellence. When I looked at students walking around the campus, I was overwhelmed with pride. When I looked out on the quad where the Alpha Chapter of my Sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, Incorporated – a black collegiate women’s service organization, stepped – stood in awe and was simply overcome with emotion and gratitude, . During that visit, I sat in the classrooms where my worth, value and potential was validated in the first place. It was almost too much, and I thought to myself, this has got to be what it is like to be white in America.
HU – You Know.
Doherty, E. (2021). "Biden unveils executive order to support HBCUs." Retrieved September 26 2021, from https://www.axios.com/biden-unveils-executive-order-supporting-hbcus-616adac1-8ecb-4140-8273-d27414670bba.html
Saunders, K. M. N., B.T (2018). HBCUs Punching Above Their Weight: A State-Level Analysis of Historically Black College and University Enrollment Graduation. Washington, DC.
Stroud, R. S. (2009). Leading to Transgress: African American/Black Women Leaders in Predominantly White Institutions of Higher Learning. . Education. Ann Arbor, MI, Mills College. Ed.D: 138.