Our nation’s international competitive position depends in part on the quality of higher education that it provides all its citizens. It is fortunate we have an array of higher educational institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) that serve the unique needs of a diverse population that seeks equal access to higher education.
The nation’s diverse 105 HBCUs, serving more than 300,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students, constitute an important segment of the higher education community that can help reach our nation’s higher education goals. Forty-nine percent of them are private four-year institutions, 38 percent are four-year public institutions, 10 percent are two-year public institutions, and 3 percent are two-year private institutions.
Dr. Alvin Thornton
HBCUs have played an indispensable role in the general development of our nation and the Black community, especially in democratizing the public space, expanding civil rights, and enhancing concepts of humanity and diversity in higher education. HBCUs do not simply give Black and other students an opportunity to attend college. They provide students unique cultural, intellectual and psychological experiences that are essential to their identity and subsequent success in life.
HBCUs are also important economic components of the communities in which they are located. They contribute disproportionately to the education of Black students and underserved populations, specifically in undergraduate and graduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
Although our nation’s HBCUs are only 4 percent of its colleges and universities, they award approximately 22 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by African-Americans. In the critical areas of science and engineering, they award approximately 24 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans and nearly 35 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry.
Although only approximately 20 percent of African-American college students attend HBCUs, 40 percent of African-American engineers received their degrees from an HBCU. Among the top 21 producers of African-American undergraduate students who earn doctoral degrees in science, 17 are HBCUs.
Race relations in the postsegregation and Jim Crow era are defined by substantial social, educational and economic gains by Black Americans. However, the degree of progress is complicated by attacks on affirmative action and other actions that limit the development of Black students. Socioeconomic barriers continue to marginalize segments of the Black community, limiting their access to higher education. In this environment, it would be illogical to undermine HBCUs and increase the vulnerability of the Black community, which is an important component of American society.
Although each individual HBCU and MSI has a developmental agenda specific to their unique histories and state contexts, constituencies and goals, they also must have a specific agenda that informs and enhances their ability to navigate and negotiate cur-rent high-stakes presidential and congressional policy-making.
Current leadership conversations about HBCUs and MSIs are framed in a manner that connects them to national educational goals. The conversations about HBCUs and MSIs should be equity-based and focus on the following specific agenda:
Dr. Alvin Thornton chaired the Political Science Department and served as associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, associate provost and senior advisor to the president at Howard University. He is a graduate of Morehouse College and Howard University.