By Harry Colbert, Jr.
It’s a conversation that tends to present itself from time to time and within the past eight years of an African-American presidency, some again are asking, what’s the need for Historically Black Colleges and Universities – or HBCUs, as they are more commonly known.
The conversation has arisen in the Twin Cities as the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) is set to present its Empower Me Tour for high school students – a showcase of at least 10 UNCF supported HBCUs. The tour comes to the Minneapolis Convention Center next week (Tuesday, Sept. 27). The UNCF Empower Me Tour will allow qualified area seniors to be admitted on the spot to one of its 37 member institutions. In addition, Target Corporation will be awarding $30,000 on-the-spot scholarships.
When most HBCUs were founded, it was because African-Americans were denied access to almost every public and private institution of higher learning in the nation. Sure, there was the rare exception, but that exception was in most cases a literal handful in numbers. For example, in 1911 the University of Indiana – the state’s flagship public institution – had a student population of nearly 1,300, yet only 10 were African-American. It was even worse at other “public” state universities. The University of Missouri didn’t enroll its first African-Americans until 1950. Lloyd Gaines was the first African-American admitted to the university, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1938, but Gaines was never enrolled, as he disappeared under mysterious circumstances and his disappearance was never solved. In Alabama, in 1963 Gov. George Wallace personally blocked the doors to the University of Alabama in an effort to prevent two African-American students from enrolling.
In the scope of time and in the context of history, 1963 isn’t that long ago. So to some, the question of why is there still a need for HBCUs is almost laughable – especially when looking at things from a statistical standpoint. Here at home, in two separate sets of data, the University of Minnesota was found to have a 3.9 percent Black enrollment and of that it graduated just 35 percent of its Black students.
In 2005 the graduation rate at historically-Black Fisk University in Nashville was 64 percent. Desralynn Cole was one of them. Cole, who graduated from North Community High School, said choosing Fisk over a predominately white institution was one of the best decisions she ever made.
“I’m eternally grateful for the amazing experiences I had at Fisk University,” said Cole, who is a public health specialist with the city of Minneapolis’ health department. “Some of the best connections and best friendships came from that experience.”
Cole said being around so many other Black students who were high achievers, and having a largely Black faculty and administration was an inspiration to her.
“Being immersed in an environment with people who looked like me and who were thirsty for knowledge was such an empowering experience,” said Cole. “Many of my classes were taught by Black educators and you were around strong Black people all day, every day.”
What Cole experienced at Fisk, Christopher Johnson is experiencing at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala. Johnson is in his sophomore year and said he couldn’t be more happy with his school selection.
“I really wanted to go to an HBCU,” said Johnson, who like Cole, was accepted to a multitude of predominately white institutions. “At Tuskegee the classes are smaller and you’re able to build relationships with professors. The staff is diverse so you can connect with them on a cultural level.”
One of the people who questioned the need for HBCUs was Johnson’s father.
“I had this conversation with my father, who is white, and doesn’t realize that there’s still a problem,” said Johnson. “White people sometimes don’t understand the importance of certain things.”
Though obviously needed, many HBCUs are on the brink of collapse due to economic concerns. UNCF Regional Development Director Sharon Smith-Akinsanya said the possibility of extinction for the smallest HBCUs that have the fewest resources is real, just as it is for any small, private college or university that is competing for students and resources. According to Smith-Akinsanya and Brian Bridges, who leads the Patterson Research Institute at UNCF, a recent study by the Parthenon-EY Education Group identified 122 four-year institutions that exhibit four key risk factors for closing and a few HBCUs are in this group.
“However, HBCUs have been making due with scant resources for 150 years because of their mission, dedication and their commitment to their communities,” said Smith-Akinsanya.
Despite consistent pronouncements about closing, only one HBCU has closed its doors in the past decade (St. Paul’s College). Smith-Akinsanya said losing more HBCUs could have broad implications and lasting effects, especially for the less affluent.
“Their potential closing has a broader impact because of the type of students they enroll – overwhelmingly low-income, first generation and academically underprepared,” said Smith-Akinsanya. “Their (HBCUs) dedication to these students and their mission drive these institutions to survive when lesser schools would choose not to.”