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HBCUs: An Educational System at the Crossroads

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by Black Issues

HBCUs: An Educational System at the CrossroadsToday, the 105 historically Black colleges and universities are facing a paradigm shift that will inevitably determine their fate in the 21st century. Their roles have changed tremendously since the first campuses — Lincoln University, founded by the Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania in 1854, and Wilberforce University, founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church in Ohio in 1856 — became havens north of the Mason-Dixon line for Black students seeking a postsecondary education.
Disagreements over the mission and value of HBCUs are nothing new, even among Blacks. But a new debate may jeopardize these schools’ continued existence. The threat comes from the federal government’s efforts to eliminate segregation in colleges and universities. Specifically, the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in U.S. v. Fordice ordered the state of Mississippi to eliminate its HBCUs because the state had failed two of three key tests used to determine whether a state’s higher education system had been successfully desegregated. In response, Mississippi imposed higher entrance requirements, and enrollments declined precipitously, dropping 9.9 percent and 20.1 percent, respectively, at the historically Black Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State campuses. Private HBCUs felt the impact as well.
Clearly, HBCUs are at a crossroads, but they can continue to play a crucial role in our nation’s educational system even now facing increasing costs, legislative oversight, accreditation pressures, part-time faculty as well as competition from TWIs.
We must remember that HBCUs have played — and continue to play — a vital role in the U.S. educational system. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the 103 HBCUs operating in 1994 represented only 3 percent of the nation’s 3,688 institutions of higher education, yet they produced one-third of all Black college graduates. Indeed, while 1.4 million African Americans were enrolled in college in 1999, a hefty number — 16.4 percent — were enrolled at HBCUs.
HBCUs must, therefore, continually re-examine themselves and make the case for their value to our higher education system, especially with regard to current issues such as globalization and the multilingual, multicultural implications of this reality. Now is not the time for HBCUs to rely on their gut feelings that they are making a difference. They must arm themselves with research that supports the case for their uniqueness and impact on the educational system.
The question before HBCUs today is how to survive and thrive in an educational system at a crossroads. The answer is that we must not dismantle HBCUs, but rather re-engineer them. Obstacles such as desegregation continue to threaten their existence, but to meet the challenge, HBCUs should remain ever mindful of their unique history and role outlined in the 1971 Carnegie Commission on Higher Education report.
According to the report, HBCUs assumed leadership for the Black community; stimulated the interest of Black youth in higher education; served as custodians for the archives of African Americans; developed learning methodologies for overcoming handicaps of the educationally disadvantaged; developed and expanded programs for educating and retraining Black adults; and provided educational opportunities for students who fall short of admission requirements of conventional institutions of higher education.  — Bernard Turner previously worked for Meharry Medical College and is now a Ed.D. student in professional practices at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tenn.

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