A Watershed Moment for HBCUs

by Dr. Mila Turner
• 6 min read
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The recent political victories of Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard University), Stacey Abrams (Spelman College), and Congressman Raphael Warnock (Morehouse College) have further thrust Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) into the justly deserved spotlight as bastions of civic leadership development.

Though these well-known graduates have recently risen to prominence, HBCUs have been incubators of political and community leadership for well over a century. Today, the role that HBCUs play in society builds on this legacy while also preserving African-American culture and maintaining community.

Funding for HBCUs in 2021

HBCUs will continue to be attractive as congenial environments where Black students can develop among others who look like them and also be empowered by learning about their history and culture. In 2021 and beyond, HBCUs will remain cultural centers and community hubs — but with greater resources and impact. Philanthropists, celebrities, corporations, federal agencies, and other organizations have been eager to partner with HBCUs in recent months — a favorable trend that will certainly continue.

Millions of dollars have been donated just in the last year by high-profile individuals, including McKenzie Scott, Reed Hastings, Mike Bloomberg, and Robert F. Smith. Though many colleges and universities receive such large donations, the impact is far greater at HBCUs, which have historically been resource-starved without having comparable endowments to cover financial expenses.

Surprisingly, the lack of financial resources at many HBCUs has contributed to their glory by building resourcefulness and ingenuity, as proclaimed within the common motto to "find a way or make one."

From their humble beginnings, HBCUs have been adept at doing a lot with only a little. Now with these large charitable contributions — combined with the coronavirus relief stimulus package that forgave over $1 billion of institutional loans and President Biden's call for greater equity in HBCU funding — these institutions are in a better position than ever to fulfill their missions.

How HBCUs Use Funding

With reduced debt and greater financial resources, HBCUs have already been able to offer more financial aid to students as well as improve technology and facilities, which will help attract and retain both students and faculty.

Technology Innovations at HBCUs

Plus, HBCUs can now play a greater role in the rapidly transforming technology and science innovation fields with campus-wide technological advancements. Corporate and community sponsors have just partnered to launch a "global innovation headquarters" for HBCUs in Atlanta, Georgia, called the Propel Center, that is designed to be a space for both digital learning and also business incubation to support Black entrepreneurship.

The Propel Center will be located in the Atlanta University Center consortium of HBCUs, though it will benefit students well beyond the Atlanta area. Created with a $25 million contribution from Apple — among others — its very establishment demonstrates the investment of leading tech companies in a diverse future workforce.

Another top tech employer, Google, already has existing partnerships with HBCUs to offer training and internships to better prepare graduates for employment. This year, Google is working to strengthen those relationships and widen the pipeline from HBCUs to employment in the technology sector. Expect more internships, exchange programs, and other opportunities for tech-savvy students to become available in the near future.

Environmentalism at HBCUs

Another national and international trend evident on HBCU campuses is an increased focus on the natural environment, sustainability, and climate change. These institutions are clustered in the southeastern United States and for this reason are at greater risk of experiencing more extreme heat and weather resulting from a warming planet. However, their geographic locations position HBCUs to lead research and advocacy related to environmental concerns — especially environmental justice.

The HBCU Climate Change Consortium raises awareness about climate justice, or how already marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

The HBCU Climate Change Consortium raises awareness about climate justice, or how already marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Similarly, concerns for environmental justice extend to food justice and (architectural) design justice movements, which strive to confront and overcome inequalities.

The continued focus on these issues pulls greater financial resources to HBCUs to fund relevant research by faculty and students. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has partnerships with Florida A&M University, Jackson State University, and others to fund marine and coastal research while addressing the concerns of communities about their changing environments.

Social Justice at HBCUs

This focus on justice alongside the national trend to incorporate the principles/values of diversity, equity, and inclusion has a double impact on campus.

First, it means that employers and graduate programs are deliberately making an effort to create or widen a pipeline that directs HBCU graduates toward their organizations through professional opportunities or advanced study. As a result, institutions can better attract highly skilled and diverse talent from lesser known colleges and universities where students may have been overlooked without a direct pathway.

Second, many HBCUs have been working to ensure greater equity and inclusivity on their campuses through research, educational enrichment, mentoring, scholarships, and internships.

For example, Howard University recently created the Center for Women, Gender, and Global Leadership, and Spelman College just announced the first-ever HBCU Queer Studies chair — a prestigious faculty appointment that will support the advancement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ+) research. These initiatives are great strides toward fostering a greater sense of belonging for queer and gender non-conforming students on these campuses, and soon other institutions may follow their lead.

Diversity at HBCUs

Regarding diversity, many people may be surprised to learn that although HBCUs have predominantly enrolled African-American students throughout history, their entire student bodies are not comprised of these students.

A sizeable population of Black students at HBCUs are not African-American, but instead hail from the continent of Africa or from elsewhere within the African diaspora — especially the Caribbean and Latin America. On top of this diversity, HBCUs have recently seen increased enrollment of non-Black students (e.g., Hispanic, Asian), and nearly one-fourth of students are not African-American.

This influx of diversity parallels the increased attention focused on HBCUs as they've risen in prominence in the mainstream as a result of everything from politics (e.g., Kamala Harris' victory) to popular culture (e.g., Beyonce's Homecoming).

HBCUs as Safe Spaces

Another potential factor in the increased desirability of HBCUs is the intent of Black students to learn and grow in protected spaces after/while being bombarded almost daily with news and reports of racial injustices.

Last summer's demonstrations after the executions of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor seem to have had a profound impact on students. More and more students are citing racial injustice as the most concerning social problem in America. They are eager to discuss not just police brutality, but also politics and our nation's social structure with a more informed understanding of history and the concept of justice.

This is not new discourse in the HBCU classroom since these same concerns have been present for centuries, but the prominence of racial injustices in the news and social media lately seem to have deepened students' understanding of social issues and provided them with a wider vocabulary to discuss them.

The ability to voice concerns in a safe environment combined with the common HBCU mission to provide leadership for the African American community is empowering and yields a greater sense of agency for students.

One promising new initiative to reduce racial injustice and improve police-community relations is making history: The Lincoln University Law Enforcement Training Academy in Jefferson City, Missouri is the first in the nation to recruit and train police officers at an HBCU.

The ability to voice concerns in a safe environment combined with the common HBCU mission to provide leadership for the African American community is empowering and yields a greater sense of agency for students. Additionally, HBCUs have an important role as information-sharing networks as well as community gathering spaces. This is why HBCU students lead and support social movements presently and have been at the forefront of social change throughout history.

Remember that it was North Carolina A&T students who risked their lives to desegregate lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. Their font-bold action quickly galvanized a student-led movement throughout the southern United States that spread to 125 cities in nine different states in only two months. This is a testament to the centuries-long efforts of HBCU students, alumni, faculty, and staff to advance the social, political, and economic position in the Black community.

The Future of HBCUs

Each day we are learning more about the tremendous impact of the HBCU experience. Now there's a national research Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University that has among its goals to ensure the future of HBCUs through research and the mobilization of resources. This is important as HBCUs are far from monolithic and can vary greatly in their structure, resources, technical designation, and other distinctions (e.g., public or private, urban or rural).

While much is known about the history of HBCUs and their historical role providing racial uplift through education, more research is needed to better understand the contemporary impact of an HBCU education amidst a shifting educational landscape where enrollment across most institutions of higher education was declining, even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Altogether, the HBCU forecast for 2021 is very bright. The increased visibility and prestige of HBCUs over the last few years has come with many benefits for students, faculty, alumni, and the wider community.

The current role of HBCUs will continue to evolve to meet the needs and desires of a progressing African American community. Though originally established as the only institutions where African Americans students could receive a higher education due to racial segregation, now HBCUs are so much more than the only choice; today, they are often the first choice.

Mila Turner, Ph.D., is a sociologist and assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. Mila is a researcher and supporter of all HBCUs, and a proud triple graduate of Howard University where she earned her doctorate.

Header Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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