Students who enroll in historically black colleges are likely to find a supportive atmosphere, close relationships with faculty and a longstanding tradition of African-American excellence. With notable alumni including Martin Luther King, Jr. (Morehouse College, www.morehouse.edu), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University, www.tntstate.edu), Spike Lee (Morehouse College) and Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University, www.lincoln.edu), these institutions have long played a key role in educating African-American leaders.
A supportive environment
According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are institutions that were established before 1964 with the primary mission of educating African-Americans. These institutions originally provided educational opportunities to black students when they were systematically barred from other colleges and universities. There are 105 public and private HBCUs, including four-year colleges, community colleges, medical schools and graduate or professional schools. Most are located in Southern states.
For African-American students, attending an HBCU offers an opportunity to be part of a close-knit campus community where many others share their heritage. “They allow African-American students the opportunity to share, develop awareness, bond and connect in ways that may not have been made available at other institutions,” says Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina, Professor of History at Coppin State University
(www.coppin.edu). At the same time, students of other races benefit from exposure to fellow students from a different ethnic background.
Pamela Champ is a five-year MBA student at Hampton University (www.hampton.edu), a historically black university in Virginia. To Pamela, a key advantage has been the presence of positive role models on campus. “It exposes African-Americans to other successful African-Americans, whether it’s the peers you see on the road to success or the professors you see daily,” she reflects. Because of the lower student-to-faculty ratios at many HBCUs, professors are not only positive examples, but also mentors. “At an HBCU the classes are generally smaller, so I’ve really gotten to know my professors one on one, and I wasn’t just a number,” says Pamela. “The intimate learning environment really helped me.”
The majority of HBCUs were founded shortly after the Civil War, and they often have a rich and storied history. Their legacies are intertwined with the history of Civil Rights and the struggle for equality. “Most colleges may teach history,” says Pamela, “but at Hampton I felt like I was a part of it, right in the middle of historical events.” Hampton students can study beneath Emancipation Oak, the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.
This year, a group of Tennessee State University students traveled to Jackson, Mississippi for a special event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. They met Civil Rights activists, including Freedom Riders who were alumni of their university.
Dr. Adrian Samuels, Vice President for Student Affairs at Tennessee State University, says that this “deep-seated, rich history” helps forge a strong sense of community. He adds that, “from a retention standpoint, students understand the historical context of the institution,” which keeps them engaged and motivates them to continue their education.
The celebration of African-American culture and heritage often extends to the curriculum. As a student in Hampton’s Honors College, Pamela took seminar courses on hip hop music, the African-American church and the pros and cons of historically black higher education institutions.
Despite the high caliber of academics, availability of resources can present a challenge. According to Dr. Bankole-Medina, HBCUs are often underfunded and face structural challenges. They have also suffered disproportionately in the current economic downturn, facing budget cuts and faculty layoffs.
This can mean they have fewer and less well-maintained facilities than their bigger-budget counterparts. And while their tuition rates are generally lower than those of other schools, fewer scholarships may be available.
College to career
Dr. Bankole-Medina says that HBCUs “offer the kind of education that leads to the development of leadership abilities and real world skills that lead to meaningful employment opportunities.”
The transition from college to career is a priority at Tennessee State. Freshmen are required to visit the Career Development Center, which maintains a relationship with them throughout their studies. They also take a Service to Leadership orientation course, where they get hands-on experience through community service.
Diversity is a growing priority in the corporate world, and many businesses seek the best and brightest diverse candidates by recruiting at HBCUs. This can be challenging because each student is competing with other highly motivated, predominantly black students. According to Pamela, whose campus enjoys frequent career recruitment, “You have to work harder to set yourself apart, and you have to be more driven.” When she graduates this spring, she will begin the job she already has lined up at one of the Big Four accounting firms.
All are welcome
While 80 percent of students enrolled in HBCUs are African-American, these colleges welcome students of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Students of all races are drawn to their affordability compared to other institutions, and to their unique academic offerings and friendly environment.
For many students, historically black colleges and universities can offer unparalleled educational and social opportunities. Whether they are a perfect fit, however, depends on the individual. For a full list of HBCUs, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website (www.ed.gov).
Above all, setting up a campus visit is the best way to find out whether a particular HBCU is the right choice for you.