Brown v. Board of Education, followed by 20 years of court decisions, federal legislation and regulatory enforcement that pushed open the door of opportunity for African-Americans to attend colleges that had once been inaccessible, has led to significant increases in minorities earning degrees.
These efforts led some to question the need for and the contemporary relevance of HBCUs--institutions that had previously been among the few higher education options for African-Americans.
Today, the questions linger.
An editorial last fall in the Wall Street Journal, for example, asserted that while HBCUs were a necessity at one point because of racism, "The reality today ... is that there's no shortage of traditional colleges willing to give Black students a chance." Like many who question the relevance of HBCUs, the critique was long on supposition and inference, and short on data and evidence.
To be sure, some HBCUs have appropriately endured criticism centered on low graduation rates, financial challenges, low alumni giving and periodic accreditation difficulties. And yet UNCF (United Negro College Fund) has demonstrated since the 2006 launch of its Institute for Capacity Building that with targeted investment in critical areas, combined with technical assistance and training, some of these same institutions can show marked improvements in enrollment, retention, alumni giving, faculty development and accreditation. And these improvements are sustained through the establishment of communities of practice via learning institutes and social networking vehicles.
More than a year ago, the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, the research arm of UNCF, sought to address such critiques by launching a research agenda, which aimed both to study the challenges that HBCUs face in the 21st century and to make the contemporary case for HBCUs. Its first publication, Students Speak! Understanding the Value of HBCUs from Student Perspectives, funded by the Mellon Foundation, was an interview study of students attending 16 UNCF member HBCUs. It reported a relatively new phenomenon: Whereas a vast majority of previous generations of HBCU students chose them because they wanted to extend their racial majority high school experience, many students who choose HBCUs today come from predominantly White high schools. The students in the latter group want a different milieu to help facilitate both their formal education and their search for racial and ethnic identity.
The UNCF Patterson Research Institute agenda also seeks to understand the larger role HBCUs play in addressing national challenges. Here again, we let the data speak. The Institute is about to release a new report, Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Vital Resource for a Diverse and Competitive American Workforce, that outlines the role of these institutions in producing workplace- and postgraduate-education-ready graduates. …