By Ryan Velez
HBCUs are a pillar of the Black community, but they may also be an endangered species. Atlanta Black Star harkens back to 2014 to an example that puts things in clear perspective. In 2014, the North Carolina Senate unanimously moved to remove a budget provision that would have given the state’s Board of Governors permission to study the closure of any school that had an enrollment decline of 20 percent between 2010 and 2013. This provision was designed to let the state close HBCU Elizabeth City State University.
What does this show? That even as enrollment for HBCUs are actually having a small upswing, it doesn’t change the fact that many are teetering on financial collapse. “The combination of fewer students who can arrange financial aid, coupled with high school counselors who are steering students to less expensive state and junior colleges, has resulted in lower enrollment and this trend is expected to continue,” Howard University Trustee Renee Higginbotham-Brooks wrote in her much-quoted critique letter. “Howard will not be here in three years if we don’t make some crucial decisions now.”
HBCUs were designed to recognize schools that supported African-Americans, and have a major role in creating the Black middle class. Today, 11 percent of all African-American college students attend HBCUs, despite HBCUs only making up only 3 percent of the nation’s educational portfolio, with 20 percent of all African-American undergraduate degree holders coming from HBCUs.
The problem is that historically Black isn’t translating to majority Black today. One example is Bluefield State College. With a student body that is 82 percent white and with no Black faculty on staff, Bluefield still counts itself as an HBCU. So does Lincoln University, which is 40 percent African-American; St. Philip’s College at 13 percent (as of 2011); and Gadsden State Community College at 21 percent. Today, more than one in every four HBCU student is non-Black. The fact that no state can have its HBCU status taken plays a role here, but the fact of the matter is that black students also have more choice.
Some argue that there is still a need, particularly when it comes to handling the economic divide. “It should be noted that many HBCUs were set up to help not only newly freed African-Americans and those already free, but also to teach those from lower socioeconomic parts of our country. So, I think HBCUs should be known for having had open doors for all cultures and people of all colors since their beginnings,” Jerry Crawford II, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas and director of the Journalism Multicultural Scholars Program, said to Atlanta Black Star. Black students at HBCUs have a graduation rate six points higher than Black students at non-HBCU schools. This can’t be ignored either, seeing as Black students are less likely to graduate overall.