“The atmosphere at HBCUs offer a space for students to grow and learn without necessarily having to factor that into their college experiences. It’s a safe space in a time where safety concerns and racial tension cannot be denied.”
Thurgood Marshall. Oprah Winfrey. Toni Morrison. Spike Lee. Martin Luther King Jr. These are just some of the notable graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), which are home to many of the nation’s most brilliant scholars. HBCU graduates have not only shaped the course of history, but today, these institutions produce 90% of the nation’s black science and technology graduates, half of the nation’s black teachers, and approximately 20% of black graduates.
While HBCUs play a vital role in educating the next generation of leaders (both black and non-black), historically black institutions have struggled over the years to receive necessary federal and private funding to help them compete with other universities. Still, enrollment has increased over the last three decades.
In 2016, Spelman College, the top ranked HBCU by U.S. News & World Report, received 7,868 new applications, a record for the 135-year-old institution, which has a total undergraduate population of just over 2000 students. Of course, Spelman is not the only HBCU to report significant increases. From 1976 to 2015, HBCU enrollment increased by 32%, from 223,000 students to 293,000. Though it’s hard to pinpoint all of the factors leading to the increase, Donald Trump — and the current divisive racial and political climate — may be one very big reason more students are choosing to attend these institutions.
Safe Spaces Matter
“The racial unrest in this country probably has a huge impact on enrollment rates,” says Dr. Jacob Butler, chairperson of the division of social sciences at Morris College, a small HBCU located in South Carolina.
Although Butler acknowledges that America has always struggled with intolerance, many young people are being introduced to the harsh realities of discrimination and prejudice for the first time. “Racism has always existed in America; this is nothing new. Perhaps what is new to some people is how emboldened it has gotten.”
“We are living in a time where the current president seems to embolden racists to be more overt with their actions,” Butler argues. “Even before President Trump, we saw situations at other institutions where racial tension has erupted on campus. We’ve witnessed protest on campus and students pushing back against racial injustice.”
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]It’s a safe space in a time where safety concerns and racial tension cannot be denied.[/quote]
Even before the deadly protest in Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, racist incidents have been bubbling up at campuses across the country. Back in May, the FBI said it would help American University investigate perceived acts of hate on its Washington, D.C. campus after bananas with the words “HARAMBE BAIT” were found hanging on trees and lamp posts. And this fall, Brianna Brochu, a white student at the University of Hartford, was expelled and arrested after allegedly harassing her black roommate by “rubbing used tampons on her bag, pouring moldy clam dip in her lotion, and putting her toothbrush inside her rectum.”
Incidents like this are a reminder that the need for safe spaces for black students are just as necessary today as they were when the first HBCU, Cheyney University (then called the Institute for Colored Youth), was founded in 1837, and could account for the increase in enrollment at campuses across the nation.
“The atmosphere at HBCUs offer a space for students to grow and learn without necessarily having to factor that into their college experiences,” Butler says. “It’s a safe space in a time where safety concerns and racial tension cannot be denied.”
Still Separate and Unequal Funding
While the racial climate in America has improved significantly since the 19th century when many historically black intuitions were founded, what hasn’t changed is the need for funding. HBCUs are chronically under-resourced, a fact that caused many to be critical of the Obama Administration for not doing enough (though they allotted between $492 and $577 million in the budget for these intuitions).
Early in his administration, Trump said he had an “unwavering commitment” to HBCUs, but later questioned whether federal funding for these intuitions was even constitutional. His comments were met with dissention by the Congressional Black Caucus, who argued Trump was “not only misinformed factually,” but also “not grounded in any serious constitutional analysis.” The CBC also chastised Trump for once again failing to unite constituents. “For a president who pledged to reach out to African-Americans and other minorities, this statement is stunningly careless and divisive. We urge him to reconsider immediately,” the group said.
In spite of readying generations of leaders, scholars, and innovators, discussions around funding HBCUs uncover just how precarious a position many of the institutions, and its leaders, are in.
“Depending on the government to keep the doors of our beloved institutions open is a dangerous thing,” Butler says. “Government funding distribution can shift depending on who is president.”
A changing of the guard can have a significant impact on students who rely on federal student aid. In fact, 70% of students at HBCUs receive Pell Grants to pay for their education, thus making these intuitions particularly vulnerable when there is talk about cutting education funding — like these days, when Trump’s proposed budget would chop $3.9 billion from the federal Pell Grant program.
Overly relying on these types of funding leaves HBCUs in a difficult predicament, which sometimes means resorting to other means to acquire revenue.
“Keeping a steady stream of income is challenging,” Butler says. “We seek first to honor the students, alumni, and mission of the college. In doing that sometimes HBCUs have to make difficult decisions.”
It was this difficulty that may have led Edison Jackson, the former president of Bethune-Cookman University, to invite Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to speak at the college’s graduation in May 2017. Some believe the school attempted to curry favor with the current administration in the hopes that the invitation to would result in financial assistance. However, the decision to invite DeVos was met with student protests, both before and during the graduation ceremony.
Seeking financial assistance at the cost of losing the respect of the student body is not a gain for any HBCU. And overly relying on federal funding is not an effective plan to maintain, and support, increased enrollment either. According to Butler, a more sustainable plan might be to appeal to the broader black community for support.
“These are our institutions. Of course, alumni giving is valuable, however, a community effort would go a long way, he argues. “Donating money to organizations like the United Negro College Fund or the Thurgood Marshall Fund is pivotal to continuing the legacy.”
HBCUs have produced some of the most successful individuals in American history at a time when many believed black people to be inferior to whites. Graduates of these institutions have raised America to greater heights and contributed to a powerful legacy. As the country continues to grapple with issues of racism and discrimination, these institutions have once again become more important than ever. But if HBCUs are to remain bastions of achievement, the community must step up where the federal government continues to fail.