Rise, Shine: Bragging Rights and Best-Kept Secrets of HBCUs
By Kyra M. Robinson
A beacon of academic hope, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been a part of the American higher educational system for over 180 years. The oldest HBCU, Pennsylvania’s Cheyney University opened in 1837, twenty-four years prior to the start of the Civil War. The University of the District of Columbia (1851), Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University (1854), Ohio’s Wilberforce University (1856), the oldest private HBCU, and Missouri’s Harris-Stowe State University (1857) were established a few years later.
After the Civil War, additional institutions were founded to provide a formal education for ex-slaves and free blacks. Often times, HBCUs began as elementary and secondary schools, and later evolved into universities and colleges. According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, HBCUs are defined as “…any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary of [Education].”
Today, there are approximately 100 HBCUs in existence, and they are diverse institutions, as seen in their student bodies, administrators, faculty, and staff members. They educate and invest in students academically, socially, culturally and politically, and engender a spirit of self-confidence and self-worth. HBCUs have a track record of educating those who may not receive a degree otherwise, and consistently contribute thousands of productive, professional citizens to society.
Often described as nurturing, uplifting and inspiring, these treasures have been a mainstay for almost two centuries and have empowered a people to move forward. Though their educational merit and value have been documented, it can escape many — including African Americans — that these institutions are interwoven into the American fabric. At times, HBCUs’ contributions are undersold.
This was made clearer to me when I chaperoned 40 middle and high school students on a HBCU tour many years ago. Although I’m a proud HBCU alumna and had the distinct honor to walk across the same campus that sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, poet Nikki Giovanni, Congressman John Lewis and others once graced, I learned more about these institutions and their iconic place in African-American and U.S. history on that trek than I ever could have imagined. Visiting Booker T. Washington’s house across from Tuskegee University’s campus and learning about Alabama A&M University’s storied heritage in being founded by an ex-slave gave me a sense of connectedness to the past, present and future.
While I can’t take you on a physical tour — though I’d highly encourage you to do at least one if ever given the opportunity — I can do my part to “rise, shine,” as the spiritual states (nod to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who introduced this genre of music to the world), and share the story of these best-kept secrets. HBCUs have had a profound and multifaceted impact on the American educational, economic, political and cultural landscape.
Educational Impact — Cultivating Minds
Before MLK or Malcolm X, there was Booker T. Washington (Hampton alumnus and Tuskegee founder) and W.E.B. DuBois (Fisk alumnus). These men had differing ideologies about whether or not African Americans should seek an industrial/vocational education or a liberal arts education. Washington believed the former was the way to economic empowerment; whereas, DuBois advocated for the latter, arguing that the “Talented Tenth,” those who received degrees in the classics and history, would lift the race up. This “great debate” was immortalized in Dudley Randall’s poem, “Booker T. and W.E.B.” Their philosophies had an impact on the formation of liberal arts HBCUs and land grant HBCUs, which focused more on the agricultural, industrial and mechanical trades.
In their early days as well as in present-day, HBCUs continue contributing to the U.S. educated populace. Per the National Center for Education Statistics, here are some more facts on HBCUs:
- Both private and public HBCUs make up a little over two percent of all U.S. degree-granting institutions. They are located in 19 states (predominantly in the South), Washington D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- Approximately 300,000 students were enrolled nationwide in 2016; almost a quarter were non-African-American students.
- HBCUs conferred approximately 49,000 associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees (combined) in the 2015-2016 academic year. And, of this total, African-American students earned 81 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, 70% of the master’s degrees, and 61% of the doctoral degrees.
- They granted 22, nine and 17 percent of all bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, respectively, earned by African Americans in 2015-16 (see the National Center for Education Statistics’ Digest of Education Statistics Tables 313.30, 322.20, 323.20, and 324.20 for more details).
- According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), about nine percent of all African Americans enrolled in U.S. colleges attend HBCUs.
Economic Impact — It’s All in the Numbers
HBCUs have been credited with the rise of the African-American middle class, and continue to help sustain it. In fact, the recent UNCF (United Negro College Fund) report, HBCUs Make America Strong: The Positive Economic Impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, states that these institutions “generate $14.8 billion in economic impact annually, 134,090 jobs for their local and regional economies, and the 50,000 plus HBCU graduates in 2014 can expect total earnings of $130 billion over their lifetimes.”
This impact is further manifested in the professions of many HBCU graduates. According to the UNCF, not only do 50% of HBCU alumni later matriculate at graduate and professional institutions, but HBCUs also award 25% of STEM bachelor’s degrees granted to African Americans. HBCU alumni make up: 70% of African-American doctors and dentists, 50% of African-American engineers, 35% of African-American lawyers, 50% of African-American public school educators, 40% of African-American Congressional members, 12.5% of African-American CEO’s, 50% of African-American professors at non-HBCUs, 75% of African-American veterinarians, 80% of African-American judges, 75% of African-American military officers, and 44% of African-American journalists. (Sources: UNCF’s “The Audacity to Lead,” TMCF, Janelle Williams’ “Dear Black People: Respect HBCUs,” and Ernie Suggs’ “HBCUs: Born in the North but most needed in the South”)
Political Impact — An Engine of Social Justice and Policymaking
The Civil Rights Movement was made possible by many participants, including the African-American church and HBCU student activists, who were among the driving forces. The Greensboro Four (Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil), students at North Carolina A&T University, started a revolution in 1960 with the lunch counter sit-in movement in Greensboro. And the 1965 Selma March, organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Morehouse alumnus) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), included SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) student leaders John Lewis (Fisk alumnus) and Diane Nash (Fisk alumna), SCLC leader Rev. Hosea Williams (Morris Brown and Clark Atlanta alumnus), Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rev. James Bevel (both American Baptist College alumni), and Andrew Young (Morehouse alumnus).
Even in modern-day, HBCU students continue the legacy of protest — whether it is against societal ills and injustices or their own institutions. Additionally, HBCU advocacy organizations stay at the forefront of policies and legislation that can help these institutions continue thriving and positively influencing the lives of the students they serve. Some of these organizations and programs include the Title III Part B, Strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program, White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), UNCF, and TMCF.
Cultural Impact – The HBCU Presence is Everywhere You Look
Beyonce’s spotlight on HBCUs during her 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival performance has been widely praised and wonderful publicity for these storied institutions. Yet, this HBCU tribute wasn’t the first time these institutions have been featured on the big — or small — screen.
On TV One’s Unsung Hollywood: A Different World, Debbie Allen (Howard University alumna), producer and director of the television series, states that A Different World helped to increase enrollment at HBCUs during its run on NBC from 1987-1993. To date, the show has been one of the most accurate portrayals of modern-day HBCU life. Other films and programs set on or revolving around HBCU campuses include: School Daze (1988), Drumline (2002), Train Ride (2005), The Great Debaters (2007), Stomp the Yard (2007), From the Rough (2013), and The Quad (2017).
The HBCU presence has permeated many aspects of both the African-American and American story. HBCUs remain educationally, economically, politically and culturally relevant. There is nothing like the HBCU experience. It is truly one of a kind. Indeed, HBCUs have earned their fair share of bragging rights.
The unabridged version of this article was originally published May 19, 2018 on LinkedIn.