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Examining HBCUs During Black History Month

From Jan. 1 to Feb. 22 in 2022, Nexis listed a total of 89 articles that included “HBCU” and “bomb threats.” Only 29 articles mentioned “HBCU” and “enrollment” during the same time period.

Photo credit: Bigstock/Daniel Ernst

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Nearly a century since Black History Week was created, and more than 50 years since February was first recognized as Black History Month, many states and school districts are trying to suppress or control what the public learns about the history of Black people in America. At the same time, much of the news media focus on the educational institutions established to educate formerly enslaved Black people has been negative – focusing on recent bomb threats rather than, for example, a historic rise in enrollment despite the pandemic, or important investments in new programs at schools, such as Howard University.

From Jan. 1 to Feb. 22 this year, Nexis listed a total of 89 articles that included “HBCU” and “bomb threats.” Only 29 articles mentioned “HBCU” and “enrollment” during the same time period.

Nadrea R. Njoku  believes the lack of diversity within the mainstream press is one reason for the focus on bad news. She is the interim director at the United Negro College Fund’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, which researches Black people’s education status from preschool to college.

“HBCUs make headlines when negative things happen, but they don’t when positive things occur,” she said. “Issues around finances, accreditation, leadership changes have a sensational or scandalous tinge when they happen at HBCUs, but at predominantly white institutions, it isn’t magnified or covered with the same urgency.”

Herbert White is an HBCU graduate and editor in chief of the Charlotte Post, the city’s 150-year old Black weekly newspaper. White attributes much of the biased reporting by mainstream white publications to a lack of awareness and interest. “I believe most journalists overlook HBCUs because they didn’t go to them, don’t know anyone who did or most likely, consider them ‘less than in terms of academic prestige or reputation,” White said. “They’re only recently discovering HBCUs as institutions beyond the places where Martin Luther King or Oprah Winfrey went to college.”

Reporters who cover these institutions need a certain level of sensitivity and ethical care, Njoku advised.  Diversifying reporting and editorial staff and understanding the how and why of HBCUs can go a long way to addressing the problem.

What is an HBCU?

Even many Black people have misconceptions about the history and role of HBCUs in the educational landscape, as evidenced by comments made by Black talk show host Wendy Williams in 2016. “I would be really offended if there was a school that was known as a historically white college. We have historically Black colleges,” Williams said.

Black people didn’t devise the term. Higher education institutions established prior to 1964 with the mission to serve Black people were designated as HBCU in The Higher Education Act of 1965, and they were “historically” Black because for 100 years post-slavery, they were by and large, the only colleges Blacks could attend.

The first HBCUs were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio before the Civil War, but the vast majority of today’s HBCUs (101 in total) were established in the South after the abolition of slavery.  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prominent Black Americans questioned whether establishing separate schools hindered equality and enshrined segregation. Others debated whether Blacks were better served by vocational training or a more classically “intellectual” education.

Stories That Should Be Told But Often Aren’t

Systemic Underfunding 

One narrative Njoku would like to see go away is the notion of HBCUs doing more with less. Rather than boasting of their scrappy resourcefulness, journalists should ask what’s the reason for their financial struggles?

“We have a lack of resources around scientific facilities, technology, infrastructure and, yes, we have innovated with the resources available to us because there’s no choice,” Njoku said.

The Atlantic staff writer Adam Harris explored the long history of state funding disparities for HBCUs in The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal – and How to Set Them Right. Harris details how state governments have systematically deprived these institutions of adequate funding, a practice that continues to this day. Contributions from billionaire philanthropists alone can’t overcome a century of systemic underfunding.

The Mission and Impact of HBCUs

“HBCUs are tasked with a different kind of responsibility as education institutions,” White said. “They are also economic and social mobility engines for a marginalized and underrepresented group. I want our reporters to keep that point in mind, too.”

HBCUs can make an extraordinary impact on social mobility for those who graduate. More than 70% of HBCU enrollees are eligible for Pell Grants when they first enroll. Within six years of graduation, 70% of HBCU alumni are out-earning their parents and are making more than $50,000 a year.  And within 10 years, typical first-generation HBCU graduates earn an average of more than $70,000 a year, according to a study by the Frederick Douglass Patterson Research Institute.

HBCUs As Local Economic Drivers 

In many small and rural towns where HBCUs are located, they are the epicenter of culture and economic growth. They supply jobs at all levels for the surrounding communities, and many people visit the campus to participate in the variety of cultural activities and events.

What’s Next for HBCUs

Affirmative action in college admissions has been hotly debated and litigated since the late 1960s when federal law required colleges to consider race as a factor. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard is a watershed moment. Plaintiffs argue that there is no circumstance under which race should ever be taken into consideration in college admissions, even in the interest of furthering diversity.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning education writer Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted, the initial intent of affirmative action programs was not to achieve diversity but rather to address “the structural disadvantage Black Americans faced because they descended from slavery.”

Harris writes in the Atlantic that this court case will likely end all vestiges of affirmative action.

“If the majority dismisses what remains of the nation’s experiment with affirmative action, the United States will have to face the reality that its system of higher education is, and always has been, separate and unequal,” he wrote.

White agreed but also believes that most HBCUs are in position to take advantage of the changes to come.

“America is browning by the day, and demographics will dictate that every college is going to need every color in the palette to remain viable,” White said. “Campus leaders will need to figure out how to remain relevant to potential students and faculty, regardless of race.”

HBCUs consistently overproduce, accounting for only 3% of public and not-for-profit institutions, yet enroll almost 10% of African American college students nationwide, while yielding 17% of the bachelor’s degrees and a quarter of the STEM degrees earned by Black students, according to the Frederick Douglass Patterson Research Institute’s study.