HBCUs (Pt. 1): Necessity or Nuisance?
In May 2005 I graduated from a prestigious HBCU in the Southeast United States. I am currently enrolled in a post-graduate degree program at another prestigious HBCU in the south. My father attended both these same schools some forty-years ago.
My mother attended two HBCUs, her sister and sister-in-law attended one. My father’s sister and her husband (my aunt and uncle) attended an HBCU, and their son (my first cousin) attended the same HBCU. I’ve got “play aunts” that attended HBCUs as well.
I have a maternal cousin that attended an HBCU, and it’s rumored that my mother’s father (my granddaddy) won a scholarship to attend an HBCU but could not do so for several personal and important reasons.
All that is to say that it would appear that the importance and significance of attending an HBCU was woven into the fabric of my DNA well before I was even a passing fancy in anyone’s mind.
That experience isn’t shared with many African Americans today, and with scores of dramatic changes happening in our society and world HBCUs have easily come under severe scrutiny from inside and outside the “Black” experience. The main criticism (among many) concerns the significance and relevance of the HBCU and the Black College experience: “do we still need HBCUs today?”
My personal answer to that question is an unequivocal and passionate yes. That unequivocal and passionate yes, however, comes from a specific way of understanding the history of predominantly Black institutions and how their existence is still relevant in light of the many criticisms that question their validity in our 21st Century Black experience.
One reason folks question whether or not HBCUs are still relevant is because of their history in the United States. Primarily founded to educate freed slaves during the post-Civil War and Reconstruction Period in the United States, the 105 HBCU institutions that exist today do so with the specific intent to provide educational opportunities for Black people.
The problem with such a specific focus is that on the surface it appears discriminatory and seems unnecessary in our “post-racial” United States. In 2013 Blacks can apply to and be accepted in any university they please; therefore what’s the purpose of having a “Black” college when Black people can go to school anywhere they want? On the other side of that argument is the perspective that such institutions, by their very name, intentionally promote a form of segregation that discriminates against non-Black students.
Another criticism is that these institutions are a financial drain on our educational system. With low enrollment numbers and questionable financial decisions (including, but not limited to, Morris Brown College in Atlanta and Alabama State University in Huntsville), is it wise to keep these schools functioning, operating, and even open?
My answer is still an unequivocal and passionate yes.
I believe the issue with understanding the relevance of HBCUs today has to deal with relying too much on their historical significance to validate their value. Instead of taking a post-Civil War reality and planting it firmly into the 21st Century, it works better to evaluate our current situation and ask how that post-Civil War reality still has objective truth and value today. Effectively we’re learning from the past instead of attempting to relive verbatim what happened in the past.
It’s important to know that HBCUs not only educated Blacks because they weren’t allowed to attend predominantly White colleges, but also because they were schools that took a chance on educating students no other institution would dare to accept for our perceived lack of intelligence and the rampant institutional racism that ruled the land.
Given that today Blacks can apply and get accepted into any school, HBCUs find themselves in positions where they’re forced to accept students that some well-funded universities won’t even blink at.
To say it differently, if a school such as the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa (Roll Tide!) is aggressively targeting African-American students, offering top-notch scholarships while adhering to a strict non-negotiable set of criteria (must have a 3.0 GPA, making a 2.98 GPA invalid), what happens to those that can’t grasp the standards set by the university yet have the proficiency to excel beyond imagination if given the chance and opportunity to do so?
For the last five years I’ve witnessed a good number of young men and women arrive on campus as first generation college students. Often times these same students honestly don’t have all the resources (financial, emotional, physical, educational, etc.) or rigid requirements (that non-negotiable 3.0 GPA) necessary to get into much larger institutions. Yet here are our HBCUs still intentionally investing in the same women and men the status quo would easily refer to as “lost causes.”
The key word in that sentence is investing. HBCUs invest in students, particularly Black students, with the assumption that these students will ultimately graduate and contribute completely and consistently to the schools and their Black communities. The whole of society will benefit from their contributions, but the explicit goal is to educate Black folks and prepare them to help other Black folks. This also promotes the legacy of service to one’s community and race that is an essential part of the mission of most (if not all) of the 105 HBCUs in existence today.
Those two thoughts pretty much sum up why I believe HBCUs are still necessary today: HBCUs intentionally invest in students, having a keen focus on Black students, with the expectation they will graduate and contribute earnestly to whole of society in general, and the advancement of Blacks in the United States and the world explicitly. There are very few institutions of higher learning outside of HBCUs that will have that will focus at the core of what they do.
There’s more to the story than just this, however; I’ll reserve more thoughts for another post, but as for right now I’ll offer you the time and space to add your own thoughts below. BC