HBCU Insights: Changing the Discourse on HBCUs

A column by Larry J. Walker

Ensuring every American has the opportunity to develop marketable skills is critical. After graduating from high school, completing an associate degree, GED or serving in the U.S. military aspiring engineers, scientists and teachers seek reasonably priced colleges with supportive environments. However, post-secondary institutions with prohibitive tuition, room and board and fees prevent students from low and moderate income backgrounds from obtaining a bachelors degree. Fortunately, recent state and federal proposals are attempting to make college more affordable while increasing the number of minority, first generation, low to moderate income college graduates. Throughout their history historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) enrolled more students from predominantly low income and minority communities in comparison to predominantly White institutions (PWIs). For this reason, HBCUs are equipped to support students in need of academic, emotional and social support. Unfortunately the recent struggles of some HBCUs tarnish their distinguished history of educating students.

In 2002, Morris Brown College, a HBCU located in Atlanta, Georgia lost its accreditation because of a plethora of financial problems. The African Methodist Church founded Morris Brown in 1881 to educate Black students. Since Morris Brown’s inception the institution educated thousands of students who may not have attended college. More than a decade after losing accreditation the college continues to graduate a small number of students. Morris Brown’s struggles foreshadowed the demise of St. Paul’s College, a small HBCU, located in Virginia. In 2013, St. Paul’s, encountered financial problems that forced the historic institution to close. Some pundits suggested the loss of St. Paul’s and Morris Brown’s financial exigency signaled an end to HBCUs golden era. However, upon closer examination several HBCUs are continuing to thrive despite a variety of obstacles.

Hampton University has a Cancer Research Center that focuses on closing disparities and developing new research. Recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Hampton a $622,000 grant to increase the number of African-Americans in computer science. The grant reflects Hampton’s ability to compete with larger institutions to secure vital funding. Similarly, Morgan State University signed an agreement with the New York Academy of Sciences, which will create opportunities for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors. The initiative is consistent with multiple partnerships the university has solidified over the last few years.

Several other HBCUs including Fisk University and Howard University have received funding to improve programs. For instance, a researcher from Howard was recently awarded a $1.1 million grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) while Fisk received funding to maintain their archives. Each institution has a legacy that extends beyond the classroom. Fisk and Howard alumni have made major contributions in education, politics and science. Despite the success of HBCUs, collectively, they face a variety of challenges. Recently, South Carolina State University had to convince legislators not to temporarily close the university because of financial difficulties. Closing the university would have led to dire consequences for students including transferring to other institutions. Moreover, legislators would have resisted reopening the state’s only public HBCU.


While the problems facing HBCUs including South Carolina State University are genuine. There are factors that contributed to the disparities between South Carolina State and other public universities including the University of South Carolina. Unfortunately the media focuses on the financial struggles at HBCUs without examining the issues from a historical perspective. HBCUs struggle to fund programs, rebuild facilities and provide scholarships because of inequities. For instance, during the 1800’s several HBCUs were founded because of Morrill Land Grant Acts (I & II) yet they are not funded at the same level as PWIs. The uneven support for land grant and other public universities has forced HBCUs to file lawsuits to counter years of inadequate funding. Regrettably, some HBCUs have struggled financially which reinforces misconceptions including: 1) HBCU faculty members are not as accomplished as their counterparts at PWIs 2) HBCU’s are not as rigorous and 3) HBCU’s mission of educating Black students is no longer relevant in a post-racial society.

Changing the discourse regarding HBCUs has been difficult but advocates, institutions and stakeholders have taken steps to counter the deficient oriented focus. For example, Hampton University hosted the AARP HBCU Awards Ceremony, which recognizes the contributions of administrators, faculty, students and alumni. The annual event is a showcase that allows sponsors to challenge preconceived beliefs regarding HBCUs. Some of the awards include best: marching band, student government association, research center, alumni publication as well as student of the year (male and female) and faculty member of the year.

The AARP HBCU Awards Ceremony is part of a growing trend highlighting the accomplishments of HBCUs, alumni and students. For instance, the HBCUstory symposium sponsored by Fisk alumnae, Dr. Crystal DeGregory, is an annual event that brings together scholars to examine HBCUs historical significance. This year the symposium titled “Reconstruction in a New Age Resistance: Respecting our Roots+ Restoring our Rights” will be held at Fisk University. Sponsoring events that change the narrative on HBCUs is paramount.

For more than a century HBCUs educated Black students from predominantly low and moderate income families with limited resources. While some students from HBCUs come from affluent backgrounds the majority of students are dependent on federal and state funding. Thus, ensuring HBCUs have funding to educate students is important. Historically, Black students have encountered a variety of barriers including living in substandard housing, limited educational opportunities and pathways to success. HBCUs prepare students to break down obstacles by emphasizing concepts related to shared responsibility and political empowerment. Without these institutions thousands of Black students would face a cloudy future.

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Dr. Larry J. Walker is an educational consultant focused on supporting historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His research examines the impact environmental factors have on the academic performance and social emotional functioning of students from HBCUs.

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