For a host of mostly ridiculous reasons—including the fabled post-racialism—questions are repeatedly posed about the relevance and status of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). And frankly, the question is kind of offensive. Nonetheless, a crude psycho-sociocultural outline helps to contextualize why these questions about HBCUs persist.
Beginning in the 1960s, as Black students began attending predominantly White institutions (PWIs) of higher education in much greater numbers, HBCUs that had previously supplied leadership within and beyond Black communities suffered an erosion of support and enrollment declines. Certainly, with the access provided by demands from both the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, a “grass is greener” mindset flowered. Black families who were once relegated to “colored” schools started looking to the Ivy League and public flagship universities to advance the social status of their children.
In the late 1980s and throughout much of the ’90s, there was a resurgence of support for HBCUs. Some of this was the result of many Black PWI pioneers understanding the importance of a Black college education for their kids within a still racialized America.
This renewed excitement around HBCUs also paralleled golden era hip-hop, mainstream Black films like Boyz N the Hood, Spike Lee joints like School Daze and the network juggernaut that was The Cosby Show. (Its stereotype-shattering spinoff, A Different World, was famously situated at the fictitious HBCU Hillman College.) But these pop-cultural Reagan-era pushbacks dissolved in large part by the late 1990s and early 2000s as the housing and tech bubbles began to blow and a traditional, rugged individualism again began to be understood as the goal.
Many families who came of age in the comfort of campuses that normalized Africa medallions, ‘X’ caps, dashikis and anti-apartheid-wear were stuffing their T-shirt revolution into Goodwill bags to give away—boxing them up and schlepping it to the attic behind the holiday ornaments. This in favor of ever-looming Brooks Brothers suits, leased BMWs and plenty of assimilation over ideals of liberation and work for equality.
At the same time, many of the most robust and traditionally impacting HBCUs were already abandoning foundational ideals, leaving shells of their institutions in pursuit of affiliation and identification with PWIs that were (and are) competing well for excellent Black students. Ironically, Black access to the mainstream has left still-vital HBCUs hollow in many instances. Endowments at Black colleges are down, while many PWIs benefit financially not only from alumni giving, but also from athletic programs that leverage Black physicality, research investments from the government and elsewhere, and assorted revenue-generating innovations.
No matter the stresses and strains of Black colleges and universities in the Obama era, underlying the relevance question is a nigh racist assumption that anything predominantly Black is bad while its White alternative is better and should be more desired. The dips and dives, the wrestling with identity and mission reframing that HBCUs have had to adjust for in the passing years is no different than adaptations required at PWIs. The stakes are much higher, however, because of the systemic racism that looms for Black people in the United States.
Achievement statistics for Black college grads squarely support the importance of HBCUs. To rehash them all here misses the point. Asking about the relevance of HBCUs like asking about the importance of the Black church or the Black family. Each is crucial in the healthy development of African-Americans. This is the case simply because their focus on the development of Black people in a normed, asset-driven environment where achievement and success and love for them is a norm.
To be sure, serious retooling needs to be done in many parts of each of the still thriving, still existing HBCUs. But some will continually ask if these schools are still viable. These are basic, careless questions often asked by those who are not well versed in the historical and present-day experiences of Black people. Step into any classroom at any college, university or K-12 school and consider the care needed to educate healthy Black thinkers.
The variety of ways that Black people deserve to be built up and made strong within a society that—figuratively and quite literally—guns its youth down with little consequence can’t be overestimated. HBCUs are absolutely necessary for Black people as well as for the conscience of a nation still wrestling with deeply entrenched racism and stratified opportunity structures.
So yes, HBCUs are very necessary. A better question might be, Where would Black students go if there were no HBCUs? If there were no public HBCUs in Georgia, for example, would the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech significantly increase Black student enrollments? Probably not. Asking “why not?” is perhaps a more relevant, timely question.
David Wall Rice, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Morehouse College and is Faculty Representative for the College’s Board of Trustees. (Rice graduated from Morehouse.)
Shaun R. Harper, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Education and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. (Harper graduated from Albany State University.)