The Enduring Relevance of HBCUs in America

The question that must be asked is can HBCUs fiscally manage in these turbulent and uncertain times and still remain relevant as many state legislatures have continued to decrease funding to institutions of higher education?
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Co Authored by:

Gregory J. Harris, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice
Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice
Florida A&M University
Tallahassee, Florida


Herron Keyon Gaston, M.Div., MPA
Yale University Graduate Student
& Education Consultant

An ongoing debate at the collegiate and legislative levels across the U.S. has been about the relevance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Currently there are 105 HBCUs across the country mainly in the southern states established post-Civil war. Many of these were established as part of legislation of The Morrill Act of 1862 which we know as the Land Grant College Act. However, during that time, U.S. systems were segregated by race and the opportunity to achieve the American dream though education could not be fully realized by many African Americans in many of the Confederate states. It was not until the Second Morrill Act of 1890 passed that this was extended to include to black institutions. The vision of the originator of the Morrill Act, Congressman Justin Smith Morrill from Vermont, himself a high school drop-out, was to finance agricultural and mechanical education and to make this education available to all social classes of people in the U.S.

Though the initial motivation of this Act was wide sweeping and unprecedented as it represented a new approach to higher educational attainment and as a result many HBCUs experienced great educational outreach and established a remarkable tradition of educating African Americans as they continue to do today. However, the historical reputations that many HBCUs had in previous years has made it difficult to maintain given a variety of internal and external economic upheavals, low enrollment and other opportunity challenges facing a great majority of colleges and universities in general and HBCUs specifically. The goal is not discuss the specific problems or successes of any particular HBCU or Predominately White Institutions (PWI) but to merely share some of the dynamic differences that might exist among these institutions and how HBCUs maybe in a unique position to remain relevant due to their very organic nature and original purposes.

Among these challenges that bring into question HBCUs' relevance are mostly economic in nature. One could argue that there also exists a gap in the quality of academic programs, faculty and host a host of other indicators that exist between HBCUs and PWIs but one would then have to argue that there are differences within and among these two types of institution's academic programs as well. So, while quality of programs is very important, I believe that the economic instability might be a better indicator given the current climate in our country and the based on the consistent demands on colleges and universities.

The question that must be asked is can HBCUs fiscally manage in these turbulent and uncertain times and still remain relevant as many state legislatures have continued to decrease funding to institutions of higher education? These cuts have forced many institutions to seek other streams of revenue to support its array of academic programs, projects, faculty and other related institutional activities. Such conditions have forced higher educational institutions toward a heavier reliance on alumni support, fundraising, extramural funding and auxiliary based resources. For many Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) and HBCUs this drastic change in state support has left these institutions to their own vices in discovering innovative solutions to keep their doors open and simultaneously provide a quality educational tradition and climate.

Nonetheless, the impact of this problem seems much greater among HBCUs as their very essence is often called into question whenever their fiscal woes become public knowledge and when it appears that HBCUs either cannot or will not manage as economically as they are expected. With declining enrollments, financial ills and accreditation issues, many HBCUs find themselves barely staying afloat. This type of instability has caused many of these institutions to try and defend their missions and most importantly, their mere existence.

Therefore, the relevance of HBCUs becomes center to all other things in a changing economic system and where pressures to meet various mandated metrics have come into play to reward performance and learning outcomes rather than expand enrollment. Performance and learning outcomes are extremely important and vital to any institution's desire to demonstrate how they meets their mission and goals but it has become a less than comfortable experience for many HBCUs as they are often being compared to other PWIs who may have been afforded a longer period of consistent and substantial state support, large alumni bases of support and larger academic and extracurricular programs that generate revenue and subsequently raise the brand value of the institution.

This sort of institutional popularity as seen often through well-funded wining athletic programs, well-renowned academic programs and eminent scholar placement to name a few, certainly brings a great deal of positive attention to institutions. These and many other indicators send the message out to would be college students to attend their institutions because the very nature and great record of the institution's reputation would enhance their life and career chances in a competitive society. This type of reputation also signals to donors that their money would be well spent by investing in their institutions.

In spite of these issues, many HBCU leaders and administrators must remember the unique missions that branded them and afforded them their unique place in history in the first place. HBCUs should not abandon their original missions unless they are found to be irrelevant or dysfunctional. They should seek to expand their missions and embrace change in ways that PWIs have difficultly doing due to their very nature. For example, PWIs cannot educate the entire U.S. population nor does every student wish to attend a PWI. Though higher education institutional missions can be broad and appear to be inclusive and diverse, data of their enrollment, admissions records, acceptance rates and academic profiles certainly send a different message about the values of those institutions. One must remember all HBCUs and all PWIs are not created equal and the same problems do not always impact them the same ways as it might other institutions.

This leaves the door open for HBCUs to continue attracting and recruiting quality and deserving African Americans students and at the same time attract a variety of other student subgroups that may qualify for admissions at their institutions but may not be granted that opportunity at many PWIs. Among the fastest growing college groups seeking a college experience are African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Pacific Islanders and Asians. HBCUs must diversify their student body and offer a variety of attractive academic programs that will bolster their identity and at the same time build a reputation of producing top students in their chosen fields. Some HBCUs may also be located in an area that has a large Hispanic population and therefore may want to consider the possibility of being designated or partnering with a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) though Title V.

HBCUs are also in a great position to offer a variety of online Baccalaureate and Master degree programs and potentially increase the cost per credit hour for such online courses to eventually pay faculty and other support staff connected with the course development, design, delivery and maintenance. In addition to this strategy, especially in expanding Masters degrees program offerings, HBCUs also may be positioned to attract or recruit from the international community through various feeder programs and articulation agreements. These unique partnerships would allow international students to gain a meaningful education within the states while potentially working, living and contributing back to their respective communities.

There are also unique social, psychological, health and economic conditions that adversely impact communities of color nationally and internationally such as poverty, violence, disproportionate minority contact in criminal justice system, disparate treatment of minorities, inequities in health care and medicine, mental health and educational opportunities to name a few. While there are many others, these are the types of academic programs and activities that HBCUs should be leading the charge on due simply to the fact that these issues have a profound and often direct impact on the very populations they educate, serve and address as part of their academic and research missions.

HBCUs are also in unique positions to address the so called traditional intellectualism that must be forever present in any educational institution but can link this intellectualism with issues that have not been researched heavily by mainstream researchers at PWIs and could be considered anti-intellectual by their standards. However, we know that these factors impact the lives of people on a daily basis. HBCUs and their faculty should be rewarded for tackling social and medical phenomena that others have not attempted or been interested in researching. Such areas of interest can open new intellectual doors and conversations for engaging discourse nationally and internationally. More importantly, we should not just conduct this research but we must apply it in order to make our communities better places. This is another unique quality of HBCUs that is within its very social nature to be involved in its community and be change agents.

Certainly, the economic problems associated with maintaining any educational institution is dependent on many factors. Many PWIs suffer with this problem as well; however, the impact seems to be much greater for many HBCUs who are experiencing consistent enrollment reductions, decreased state support, reductions in federal support, dwindling or weak alumni fiscal support base and an almost non-existent endowment base. Given these dire facts, HBCUs still remain important to many people across the nation and therefore, HBCUs leaders, administrators, policy makers, faculty, staff and students must collectively revolutionize how they work together as a consortium and build the type of economic base and economic support needed to maintain important programs and at the same time prioritize what is most germane to their missions.

HBCUs must build their own metrics for success within the realm of their resources, talents, missions and based on their unique positions as minority serving institutions. While most colleges and universities want to be competitive, I do not think it is prudent to compare apples to oranges when it comes to different institutions and their resources. It is high time that HBCU leaders create metrics, benchmarks and rankings with their missions and foci in mind. Why create goals that are unattainable? Doing so leads to failure and prolonged disillusionment. Why constantly compare your institution to another institution that you are nothing like? This is of course is the beginning of sanity, envy and unhealthy competition.

Again, no college or university is created equal and therefore why should HBCUs and other PWIs for that matter constantly compare itself to an institution for which it will never be? Therefore, creating rankings and levels that create positive competition and opportunities to meet ones mission through these realistic rankings or levels would seem most desirable and meaningful. I understand that when layers or strata are created there will be inequality but I do not think it would be the type of inequality that would be to the detriment of HBCUs if this is done carefully and methodically considering the unique difference and nuances of HBCUs and their respective missions and histories; logical success can be expected short term and long term.

Dr. Gregory J. Harris is the mentor of Herron Keyon Gaston, a graduate student at Yale University and a two-time graduate of the Florida A&M University. They both are uniquely interested in the continued progression of HBCUs in America.

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