Famously portrayed in Black family sitcoms and movies of the 1980s and 1990s, Historically Black Colleges and Universities were on display on mainstream tv helping to influence Black students nationwide. “A Different World” and its infamous Hillman College put Black college experiences in the forefront painting a real-life picture of college life and shaped classes to come. Filmmaker Spike Lee also helped to make HBCUs mainstream with the Black film cult classic, “School Daze” and set at fictional Mission College.
“I grew up watching ‘A Different World’ and ‘The Cosby Show’ as a teenager. This coupled with the fact that I have HBCU alumni in my family ranging from my great-great-grandfather and great grandmother, to my dad, further stimulated my curiosity in attending an HBCU,” Peter Boykin, graduate of Hampton University and Howard graduate school says.
Aside from its portrayal in fictional works, Historically Black Colleges and Universities have housed a rich history and sense of pride in Black communities since 1837 with the first of its kind, The Institute for Colored Youth. Now, with the foundation of 101 colleges and universities across 19 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, HBCUs are home to over 200,000 students.
Previously the only institutions that would accept African American students, HBCUs have offered Black students a place to call home while in pursuit of higher education.
“Hampton was my first choice and I had been going to Homecoming since I was seven years old,” Boykin says. “By the time I stepped on the yard in August 1994 for Freshman Orientation, I felt like I was on cloud nine and had gone to heaven.”
Despite being Black institutions, enrollment is not exclusive to African Americans. According to a 2018 report released by the National Center for Education Statistics, HBCU enrollment for non-Black students make up 24 percent of total HBCU enrollment.
“We are very globally diverse,” Sean Rouse, president of Detroit’s HBCU Network, says. “There’s always this misconception that because it’s a predominantly Black school it’s not diverse enough. That is just the opposite. Our HBCUs are probably more diverse than most colleges and universities. Because you have smaller classroom sizes, you get to see that diversity.”
Though HBCUs are not exclusively for Black students, the predominately Black institutions create a home-away-from-home atmosphere. HBCUs help to create networks of Black graduates and professionals across various fields. Forming ties with professors and other faculty members often aid in a student’s success and sense of achievement.
“It was important for me to be taught by African Americans and see people who look like me in power positions of all kinds whether that be the president of the university or the dean of the school of business. This was motivation that if they can do it so can I,” says Salinah Stringer, a Detroit native and 2018 graduate of Kentucky State University.
Being prepared for life after graduation is the goal for any higher learning institution. However, for Black colleges and universities, the idea that HBCUs do not prepare students for the “real world,” thus leaving its graduates as at disadvantage, is highly speculative.
“Whether you go to college or not, the real world is still there. It does not stop,” Rouse says. “No school can fully prepare you for the real world, that’s false advertisement, in my opinion.”
Historically, some HBCUs have been met with pressing fiscal and institutional challenges resulting in loss of program accreditation and dips in enrollment. Some believe supporting Black institutions is the way to curb enrollment lows and generate additional revenue.
“For starters, we can simply support them like we support the BIG 10. There are over 100 HBCUs. We have the power to empower. We can encourage our children, cousins, nieces and nephews to attend them. We can encourage top athletes to attend them,” Stringer says. “We can represent them in our creative expressions. We can create scholarships for future HBCU students to encourage them to go where the money takes them. We can do a five-minute Google search to learn about how our ancestors fought to provide these places for us to learn when we were not welcome anywhere else.”
HBCUs could soon see an increase in enrollment as newly elected Vice President Kamala Harris is a graduate of Howard University in Washington D.C. The first HBCU grad to ever hold such a high office, Harris’ accomplishment is laying the groundwork for other alumni to follow.
“For those who doubt that HBCUs don’t prepare you for the real world, now you can look at our new vice president who’s a graduate of Howard University, but there were several key players in getting her elected who were also HBCU graduates,” Rouse says,
The importance of carrying the legacy of HBCUs has been met with support from several sources including the White House. Releasing an initiative aimed at providing high quality education, enrollment increases and improving the competitiveness of Black institutions, the U.S. Department of Education’s program will focus on three areas; programs, policies and projects to help these institutes excel.