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Reporting on the Real-World Impact of HBCUs

Historically Black Colleges and Universities are the epitome of “The Little Engine That Could.” They boost their local economies, yet they have been underfunded for decades by federal and state governments. Experts provide funding solutions, ask reporters to carefully consider their coverage, and illustrate genuine campus experiences.

Photo credit: Dima Berlin/Bigstock

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Historically Black Colleges and Universities are as relevant of a topic as ever for education reporters to cover, especially on the heels of a year in which more than 50 racist bomb threats by a minor shut down their campuses, decades-long documented underfunding to the tune of billions gained national interest, student enrollment ebbed and flowed, and questions remained about how to fund them. 

Speakers underscored these facts about HBCUs during a session at the Education Writers Association’s Higher Education Seminar: The Covid Generation in Alexandria, Virginia, this past January. They provided tips to help reporters better cover HBCUs, suggested funding solutions, and illustrated the real-world impact of HBCUs. 

Mirtha Donastorg, HBCU innovation reporter for The Plug, moderated the panel. She was joined by Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs for the United Negro College Fund; Jarrett Carter Sr., director of operations, strategy and communications at Howard University; and Jasper Smith, a current Howard student.

Funding HBCUs: “Take the Black Part Out of It.”

The panel highlighted HBCU funding issues, including disparities caused by both the federal and state governments. 

They referenced “How America Cheated Its Black Colleges,” which details almost $13 billion in underfunding to land grant HBCUs since 1987.

Murray, who is charged with lobbying the U.S. Congress for money on behalf of HBCUs, suggested that a funding solution for HBCUs is a combination of increased money from the federal government for issues, such as deferred maintenance and infrastructure. The money could be used to build new state-of-the art facilities and research labs, like Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) have gotten from federal and state money, he added.

“Imagine what Historically Black Colleges and Universities can do when you actually fund them at the clip for which they ask? What kind of superior outcome could you receive if they actually got the funding they needed for deferred maintenance, for the laboratories that are needed to fund all the programs and make sure that they were doing everything on the level where they wanted to?” Murray said.

HBCUs did get $6.5 billion from the federal government during the pandemic, which was more money in a two-year span than the previous 10 years combined, but that was barely enough, Murray and Carter said.

“It’s not a story of, ‘HBCUs are back. They’re getting a lot of money now.’ You can’t give me $100 million today when I’m trillions down over a 100 years and say, ‘Shut up. Fix the problem,'” Carter said.

Murray said HBCUs needed more support and interest from philanthropic organizations and private donors.

Carter posed a suggestion: The public should not be triggered by the fact that the schools educate predominately Black people; look at the fact that HBCUs are e major economic drivers in their individual cities and states.. For example,  communities respond to and support small-town Walmart stores, he said.

“The last thing that towns that have those big economic drivers [need] is for [HBCUs] to go away; they know it means a lot to the community … So, why is it we don’t look at institutions, specifically HBCUs, that way?” Carter asked. 

“Take the Black part out of it,” Carter said, “Who’s creating jobs here? Who’s creating commerce here? Who’s creating tourism here? Who’s generating education output and workforce regional development for this city?” 

HBCU Reporting Tips 

Highlight Outcomes 

What HBCUs do and the outcomes they produce from graduates is an American story that’s underreported, according to Carter. These Black higher education institutions play a major role in producing teachers of color, for example. 

Verify School Closures

Murray and Carter suggested that reporters stop only wanting to talk about HBCUs when every few years there is a report that one or some of them may close. 

That narrative is misleading, and factually incorrect in the fact that no HBCU has closed in recent memory, Murray said. He said he wishes that reporters would latch onto interesting and positive story ideas that he gives them instead of only wanting to report on the negative.

Check the School’s Designation 

Reporters should avoid conflating HBCUs with institutions designated as Predominantly Black Institutions. To be designated as a PBI, these institutions can’t be HBCUs nor Hispanic Serving Institutions, according to research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for MSIs. 

Find Expert Sources 

Donastorg, who said she has written more than 150 stories about HBCUs, shared with fellow journalists that they can find a wealth of experts at the institutions instead of only looking for sources at PWIs.

The Power of HBCU Representation  

Murray, a graduate of Morehouse College, and Carter, a Morgan State University alum, both shared their experiences at their respective schools. 

Murray learned about Morehouse after a middle-school teacher told him that he looked like a Morehouse man, so he looked the school up and saw that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had graduated from there. He fell in love when he visited the campus. 

After seeing teachers, athletes and people he looked up to attend Morgan and other HBCUs, Carter knew he wanted a similar experience, he said. 

Preparing HBCU Graduates for the Real World

Smith, who is a current Howard student and editor-in-chief of her student newspaper, The Hilltop, said she received a lot of questions about why she wanted to attend an HBCU when she was applying for college her last year of high school in Phoenix.

She recalled being told: “These institutions aren’t going to prepare you for the real world, when in fact they do more than that,” she said. “When I was talking with guidance counselors about applying to go to college, when I brought up going to an all-women’s college, no one told me that that wasn’t going to prepare me for the real world, but when I started to talk about Howard or Hampton or FAMU, I was constantly met with that.”

Smith feels valued at Howard, and she is getting experience there to prepare her for the real world, she said.

Case in point is her participation in the inaugural HBCU Student Journalism Network, where she will be one of six students to cover the HBCUs they attend for a larger audience. The program is a paid fellowship funded by grants from the Knight Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Craig Newmark Philanthropies and the Scripps Howard Fund.

Ira Porter covers higher education for The Christian Science Monitor.