Joseph, a black male high school student who grew up in a suburban, predominantly white Southern city, is a first-generation college goer. His parents, extended family members, and community leaders emphasized the value of obtaining a postsecondary education and gave him opportunities to engage in meaningful educational activities. His parents instilled a strong work ethic and encouraged him to exceed his own expectations. Ultimately, Joseph began his search for college.
In a business class at the high school Joseph attended, a white teacher, Miss Claire, held an informal discussion about college that focused on the state colleges and universities where most of his classmates would enroll. However, Joseph wanted a collegiate experience different from his white high school peers. Community leaders had told him about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). But, when Joseph asked Miss Claire about attending a historically black university, she said, "Those schools would not be the best fit for you because those schools are not the best schools." Joseph was dismayed by her statement because he trusted her counsel. Miss Claire's lack of knowledge and erroneous assumptions about HBCUs may have steered Joseph away from considering the value of attending a black institution.
Introduction to HBCUs
This situation is not unusual. In fact, some teachers and guidance counselors discourage African-American students from attending HBCUs due to misplaced assumptions that they won't be sufficiently prepared for graduate school or their chosen career. Today, most African-American students attend predominantly white colleges and universities. However, HBCUs enrolled the majority of African-American students in higher education until the early 1970s, and they continue to provide access to African-American, other students of color, and some white students in their undergraduate and graduate programs. The post-1970s change in enrollment resulted from activism that sparked increased access to predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Also, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Higher Education Act of 1964 alleviated some barriers to access and increased enrollment of students of color at PWIs. About 300,000 students are enrolled at more than 100 HBCUs in the United States. Ninety percent of all HBCU undergraduate students attend four-year colleges and universities, while a small percentage (10%) attend community colleges. HBCUs represent only 3% of American postsecondary institutions, yet they enroll 14% and graduate 28% of all African-American undergraduate students.
Despite the white supremacist policies that shadowed their establishment, existence, and survival as well as their comparatively lesser financial resources (Willie, 1978), HBCUs have long offered meaningful educational opportunities to African-American women and men. Over time, these institutions have provided a space to liberate and empower black aspirations for the American dream. This liberation has led to success for many HBCU graduates in a wide variety of professions. Namely, prominent black leaders such as Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University), James Clyburn (South Carolina State University), Marian Wright Edelman (Spelman College), and Ralph Ellison (Tuskegee University) have storied legacies in media, politics, literature, and community service. And some well-known black intellectuals in education such as Vivian L. Gadsden (Fisk University), James Earl Davis (Morehouse College), and Shaun R. Harper (Albany State University) attended HBCUs as undergraduates.
Overall, the contemporary mission of HBCUs uses a hybrid approach of teaching critical thinking through a liberal arts education and practical skills in professional fields, such as business, engineering, and health, for the advancement of African-American life (Gasman & McMickens, 2010). In addition, HBCUs provide a social network for students and graduates, creating informal and formal opportunities and resources that advance African-American life (Brown & Davis, 2001). …