The Triumphs and Challenges of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

By Cole, Johnnetta Betsch | National Urban League. The State of Black America, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Triumphs and Challenges of Historically Black Colleges and Universities


Cole, Johnnetta Betsch, National Urban League. The State of Black America


Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), a designation established by the federal government in 1965, are the 100-plus public and private institutions that were founded just before and in the decades following the Civil War, a time when African Americans could not attend American institutions of higher education. Today, when predominately white colleges and universities (PWI's) have a stated goal of increasing the diversity of their student bodies, HBCUs must compete for black students, and they must do so with far fewer resources

Thirty-nine of the private HBCUs form the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), as an umbrella organization for private and public HBCUs. There is considerable diversity among these institutions, because some are small liberal arts colleges and others are large research universities. Some schools are church-related colleges and universities, while others are land grant institutions. There are co-ed institutions and three single-sex colleges-Bennett and Spelman colleges for women and Morehouse College for men.

In the HBCU family, it is often said that if HBCUs did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them. Certainly in terms of the number of students that HBCUs graduate, their value cannot be doubted. Although public and private HBCUs only comprise 3 percent of American colleges and universities, they account for a quarter of all black college graduates. Three quarters of all African Americans with a Ph.D. did their undergraduate studies in an HBCU.1 A study by the National Center for Education Statistics documents the economic worth of these institutions to their communities and the nation.2 For example:

* The total economic impact of the nation's HBCUs in 2001 was $10.2 billion

* In 2001, the combined initial spending of the 101 HBCUs in their host communities totaled $6.6 billion.

* Collectively, HBCUs generated a labor impact of $4 billion in 2001, including all forms of employment income such as wages, salaries and proprietors' incomes.

When asked what they like about their HBCUs, students respond by saying that they appreciate being in an environment that is relatively free of racism and applaud being able to attend a college that is half the cost of many predominately white institutions. They speak about faculty who set high academic goals and then provide support to help students reach those goals, and staff who help to create a nurturing environment. Students say they appreciate the chance to make friends they will have for the rest of their lives, and they applaud the value placed on developing students intellectually, spiritually, physically and culturally. Many students also acknowledge the importance of being exposed to both the African and African-American history and culture that was missing in their earlier education, and they appreciate HBCUs emphasis on public and community service.

While there are many positive features at HBCUs, there are also a number of serious challenges that must be addressed if these institutions are to remain a viable choice in the world of American higher education.

Financial Challenges

Unlike public HBCUs, private ones do not receive annual funding from the state in which they are located. Therefore, it is especially important for private black colleges to have endowments from which, based on a spending rule, they can draw funds. Although all private HBCUs have some endowments funds, with the exception of a few institutions, the funding is very small.3 The combined endowments of all HBCUs are less than 2 billion dollars, while the endowment at Harvard University is approximately $35 billion. Only four HBCUs, Hampton, Howard, Morehouse and Spelman, have endowments exceeding $100 million. Spelman College's endowment is worth over $100,000 per student, making it the highest endowment per student of all HBCUs. …

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