When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cast historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as “pioneers” in “school choice” this past week, her critics scoffed at the notion that black students could choose to matriculate wherever they wished during the days of segregation. In a series of tweets, DeVos attempted to adjust her statement, focusing instead on the schools’ birth from necessity. But the episode revealed just how many misconceptions persist about the nation’s more than 100 HBCUs.
According to DeVos, HBCU founders “saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.” Presumably, “they” means African Americans.
But some of today’s most well-known HBCUs were founded by white Americans. Washington’s Howard University, which celebrates its sesquicentennial this year, is named after one of its founders, Gen. Oliver O. Howard, a white Union officer who led the federal Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War. Spelman College was founded in 1881 as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary by Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, two white teachers from Massachusetts. Later renamed, the all-female college had among its early benefactors John D. Rockefeller and the family of his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. The Rockefellers and the Baptist organization that underwrote the teachers’ mission also provided major financial support to the nearby all-male HBCU, Morehouse College.
In a 2012 story about public HBCUs in Maryland, World Net Daily’s Les Kinsolving asked, “Why is any Maryland college identifying itself as ‘historically black’ not an example of racism?” Last year, African American talk show host Wendy Williams eventually apologized after saying, “I would be really offended if there was a school that was known as a historically white college.” In 2008, Georgia state Sen. Seth Harp proposed merging two historically black colleges with two mostly white state schools, purportedly in the name of closing “the chapter of segregated schools.” (In 2015, one merger was approved.)
But these sentiments obscure a key distinction. As Morehouse graduate Martin Luther King Jr. put it in 1957, “Although Negro colleges are by and large segregated institutions, they are not segregating institutions.” There’s a reason “HBCU” stands for “historically black” and not simply “black” colleges and universities. Although they were originally founded to educate black students who were shut out of white schools, they have always enrolled non-black students. According to the Department of Education, “In 2014, non-Black students made up 21 percent of enrollment at HBCUs, compared with 15 percent in 1976.” White students account for most of the non-black HBCU student population, but schools such as Howard increasingly attract international interest. More than two dozen students from Nepal joined Howard’s freshman class in 2014, the largest delegation from any country that year.
No HBCU is on U.S. News & World Report’s list of top 100 national universities, and only one, Spelman, is ranked among its 100 best liberal arts colleges. HBCUs also have a relatively low graduation rate (30 percent) compared with all black college students nationwide (42 percent ), according to a 2015 New America report.
But nearly 73 percent of HBCU students qualify for Pell grants and in many cases come from low-income households where the cost of college is a high barrier to completion. HBCUs see their mission as serving these students, many of them first-generation college students who otherwise might not attend. And these schools, which represent only 3 percent of post-secondary institutions, produce about 20 percent of all African American graduates — and 25 percent of those in the STEM fields, according to the United Negro College Fund.
A 2015 Gallup report measured five elements of well-being — social, purpose, financial, community and physical — and found that black HBCU grads were “thriving ,” to a greater degree, in all categories, than their black counterparts who attended other institutions. The gap was largest in financial well-being. Black HBCU grads were also more likely to tell Gallup that they strongly agreed that their colleges prepared them for life after graduation (55 percent) than were black graduates of other institutions (29 percent).
A 2013 National Science Foundation report said that “of the top 50 baccalaureate-origin institutions” of black science and engineering PhD recipients, “21 are HBCUs.” In 2015, the New York Times looked at Xavier University of Louisiana, which “has some 3,000 students and consistently produces more black students who apply to and then graduate from medical school than any other institution in the country.”
In a 2015 feature, Newsweek’s Alexander Nazaryan wrote that “colleges without students do as well as airlines without passengers, and as black students snub HBCUs, HBCUs face the first true existential crisis in their collective history.” That same year, Forbes ran an article enumerating enrollment declines at several HBCUs and concluding that African American students were “voting with their feet to go to schools they think fit their needs better.”
Indeed, some HBCUs have seen declining enrollment. But writing for The Washington Post last year, Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough pointed to an uptick in enrollment at a number of HBCUs, which he called the “Missouri Effect” — social consciousness emblematic of renewed campus activism in the past few years. “Freshman enrollment is up 49 percent at Shaw University, 39 percent at South Carolina State, 32 percent at Tuskegee University, 30 percent at Virginia State University, 22 percent at Dillard University, 22 percent at Central State University, 20 percent at Florida Memorial University, and 19 percent at Delaware State University. Dillard, Philander Smith College (overall enrollment up 29 percent) and South Carolina State University all rely on overflow housing to accommodate the influx of students,” he wrote.
“Everything happening with police brutality and Black Lives Matter,” student Alversia Wade told “PBS NewsHour,” “pushed me to want an environment where I could talk to other students about all these things.”
President Barack Obama’s first budget called for a $73 million cut in funding for HBCUs. (The next year, that money was restored .) In 2011, the administration tightened loan standards, resulting in a 36 percent reduction in federal PLUS loans available to HBCU parents and causing a number of students to unexpectedly interrupt their college educations. The new rules disproportionately affected schools that served a high share of disadvantaged students. A Post analysis found that the move translated to an annual cut of more than $150 million for HBCUs.
The Obama administration acknowledged the unintended impact and took steps to adjust the loan rules. But black observers were shocked. As economist Julianne Malveaux, former president of historically black Bennett College, put it last year, “You never thought that when a conservative white man put more money in for HBCUs that a progressive black man would take it out.” In a Post op-ed in 2016, Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, asked, “Do black colleges matter to Obama?”
But Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson Jr., a former director of Obama’s initiative on HBCUs, told Inside Higher Ed last year: “It is a fact that just before President Obama took office, total annual federal funding to HBCUs was under $4 billion. During his first term, that figure climbed to nearly $5.2 billion, largely based on a very intentional boost in federal grants and loans to HBCU students. To this day, HBCUs are getting nearly $1 billion more per year than they were getting when Obama took office. That is not the behavior of a leader who thinks these institutions do not matter.”
Correction: The online version of this article previously referred to Xavier University of Louisiana as Xavier College.