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HBCUs, Places for All to Learn

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Many Historically White Institutions (HWIs) continue to struggle to provide environments that are welcoming to students of color and conducive to their holistic development. Consider some more recent incidents of racial intimidation that occurred against Black students that made their way into the national media. For example, the racially charged post-election riot at Ole Miss, the “Long Live Zimmerman” graffiti painted on the walls of the Black cultural center at Ohio State University, or the series of events that caused major commotion on Michigan State University’s campus last year. These incidents of hate chip away at the self-esteem of students of color and make them feel unwelcome on campus.

Unlike HWIs, HBCUs have a long history of providing an environment conducive to learning for students of color. Students benefit from same-race role models, culturally relevant classes, and a belief in their intellect and potential for greatness. Not only do students of color benefit from this environment, but majority students also express satisfaction with their academic and social experiences at HBCUs. They are provided opportunities to interact with diversity in ways rarely achievable at HWIs, and one would be hard-pressed to identify major headlines involving White students being racially intimidated at these institutions.

Sometimes when claims of inclusivity and empowerment are made about HBCUs, people respond with “How do you know?” or “Where’s the evidence?” The fact is that scholars have been producing research for decades that shows the contributions of HBCUs to students and student learning. In addition, one need only look at HBCUs’ track record for sending students to graduate and professional programs. Without HBCUs, there would be abysmal numbers of Black students pursing graduate degrees. HBCUs boast the kind of environment ― an incubator of talent ― that is needed for inspiring students to pursue additional graduate education.

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For good reason, much attention is placed on more effectively supporting students of color on HWI campuses; the majority of students of color are enrolled at HWIs and resources are disproportionately funneled into those institutions. To ignore this fact and direct efforts elsewhere would be neglectful on the part of scholars, practitioners and policy makers. However, it is still a reality that a White student at an HWI can navigate his/her way through college without having truly interacted with issues of diversity in meaningful ways. This, as much as the lackluster support that is provided for students of color at many HWIs, is just as problematic and certainly continues to be a major contributor to the “chilly” climates that persist, both on college campuses and in society more broadly. When majority students, administrators and faculty dictate the agenda and perpetuate campus norms at HWIs, is it not a surprise that there is still much progress to be made in the areas of diversity, but more importantly, equity?

Opportunity is knocking at the door of HBCUs. In the words of Kanye West: “Who are the kids gon’ listen to? I guess me if it isn’t you.” In other words, if it is clear that HWIs are not producing large numbers of students who are allies in the fight for social justice, who is going to do it? This is not to let HWIs off the hook, but we would argue that HBCUs have a unique opportunity to further shape the minds of young people and develop even more future leaders of our country. Quite frankly, the learning environment that is provided at most HBCUs is conducive to the development of all students, regardless of racial and ethnic background. Diversity is embedded in every aspect of the institution, from the administration to the faculty to the student body to the curriculum.

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Recent stories have highlighted the efforts of a few HBCUs to increase demographic diversity on their campuses (e.g. Paul Quinn College, Alcorn State University). There are few other places of higher learning that are better equipped to facilitate the kind of intellectual and social development that our students so desperately need than HBCUs, given their past history. HBCU leaders should embrace their unique position in the U.S. higher education system and further consider the potential benefits of including different kinds of students. This means modifying recruiting strategies, attracting a broader range of students by promoting themselves to be a place for all students, making a case to funders (such as the government, private foundations, and alumni) that supporting these institutions will contribute to the improvement of societal ills and increased tolerance and acceptance among our citizens.

Rob Shorette is a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University. He is a graduate of Florida A&M University.

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