A crowd thick with alumni packed the City Club of Cleveland to hear from leaders at their beloved alma maters: What, exactly, will be the future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)? Panelists Robert Michael Franklin, Jr., president emeritus of Morehouse College; Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of Central State University; and Claude G. Perkins, president of Virginia Union University, gave their best prognoses.

The 107 HBCUs in the United States have a storied history, small but mighty. Representing only 3 percent of U.S. colleges and universities, they educate 11 percent of all African-American students. Black colleges produce half of all black public school teachers, half of all future lawyers, and eighty percent of black judges. In an 2013 address, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised HBCUs for “almost single-handedly creating an African-American professional class in the face of decades of Jim Crow discrimination.”

Highlights from the panel discussion:

1) The value proposition of HBCUs must be more readily acknowledged

During his tenure as president of Morehouse, Franklin established the “Five Wells” of a Morehouse Man—being well-read, well-spoken, well-dressed, well-traveled, and well-balanced. HBCUs build leaders, he said, yet most guidance counselors view them as little more than “safe” schools: “Are all of our top performing students being exposed to a diverse menu of educational options?”

Predominately white institutions (PWIs) are too often touted as the best fit for all students, Perkins said, but his interactions with students at Virginia Union convince him otherwise. “I have seen students who could easily become physicians and went to some of the other schools and end up majoring in social work. Students get recruited to the larger schools and those students don’t do as well because it is not a culturally affirming environment for them. Here, you’re a person first.”

2) The wealthy (individuals and government) need to provide more financial support

Increasing alumni giving has long been a focal point: donations to HBCUs have languished under 10 percent of all graduates. Some schools, like Texas’ Prairie View A&M University, have begun campaigns for current students, to instill the “giving back” mentality before students graduate. Pressure to increase alumni giving comes as both state and federal funding decreases, leaving many HBCUs scrambling to fill the gap.

“We can’t let the African-American affluent class off the hook,” Franklin said, lamenting the $70 million gift hip-hop pioneer Dr. Dre gave the University of Southern California in 2013. Dillard University president Walter Kimbrough wrote in an Los Angeles Times op-ed: “This gift is gravy for USC; for a black college, it would transform not just individuals but whole institutions and communities.”

“Our alumni, our churches, our friends — they understand our story,” Perkins said, “but at the same time, the Obama Administration has made it very difficult for our historically black colleges and colleges that are serving moderate-to-low income students.”

“Of course if Mr. Obama had graduated from an HBCU, he would have understood that,” Jackson-Hammond added.

3) Alumni must become more vocal advocates

While the “can-do” spirit of HBCUs builds character, it ultimately diminishes the school’s capacity to undertake larger, critical projects.

“I used to work at a PWI,” Jackson-Hammond said, “and one observation is that at a PWI you usually have ten people doing one job. At an HBCU, you have one person doing ten jobs.”

The Central State president encouraged the Central State alumni in the room to do their part, to use their voice to reach potential students. “We can not wait for these students to just drop down from heaven,” Jackson-Hammond insisted. “There has to be an open dialogue about how HBCUs and K-12 institutions can work to develop a pipeline for a seamless transition. And that conversation has to start as early as preschool.”

4) Globalization and diversity must be a renewed focus

Hispanic and Latino enrollment at HBCUs has jumped 123 percent in the past 30 years, with Asian student enrollment increasing 60 percent. This has been no accident. With  PWIs like Stanford offering tuition waivers for families making under $125,000, there has been more competition for black students, with black colleges’ share getting increasing smaller.

Franklin recalled a recent trip to South Korea, where he bumped into Kevin Rome, president of Lincoln University, a small HBCU in Missouri. He was en route to a meeting with Korean education officials: “Other students outside the African-American community see value in our schools and they want to be a part of it.”

Perkins urged the audience to consider HBCUs through a mission-focused lens. “We are institutions that are willing to do the heavy lifting,” he said. “We are institutions that help our young people understand they have serious responsibilities to make this nation a better place … Any business, if they looked hard enough, would say, this is where we need to invest our money.”

by Marilyn Williams Pringle

I never wanted my three children to be sent into in an environment where they would be exposed to racism or be treated differently because of the color of their skin.

During the 1970s, when my sister-in-law went to Valparaiso University, a predominately white school in Northwest Indiana, she endured countless racial incidents that made me fearful as my own daughters approached college age. Once, a carload of young white students chased her and her friends, shouting at them and calling them the N-word until they reached the safety of their dorm.

So while my children attended high school in Cleveland, I would tell them, repeatedly, “I don’t care what college you go to, but I’m sending my checks to an HBCU.” There, I felt they would be at least somewhat protected from the ugliness that often permeates higher education. I didn’t want them accused of being “affirmative action” admissions and I didn’t want them to be feel like they had something extra to prove. At an HBCU, they could learn in an environment where people would see their abilities first, their race second.

That was my experience at Wilberforce University in southern Ohio, studying as a first-generation college student. I can’t even remember who introduced me to Wilberforce as an option for college—a guidance counselor, perhaps? But I do know my reasons for saying yes to a historically black school.

I graduated from Shaw High School in East Cleveland and thought a predominately white university would contain too much culture shock, after growing up in a place where most people looked like me. I also knew I didn’t want to go to a mega-university, like Ohio State, and be lost in the crowd. Plus, I wanted to remain close to my mom, who was living alone as a widow two years after my dad died. I found out that I liked the Ohio cornfields and riding the bus into town.

At Wilberforce, I felt like I mattered.

If a student didn’t have their act together, the professors and staff would talk to that individual like their son or daughter. They would treat the student like family. And they would remind us, “Just because you’re at an HBCU, don’t think you’re getting an inferior education.” People had a lot of pride in Wilberforce. We didn’t have a football team, but homecoming was always a big event.

I hope Wilberforce can overcome their current enrollment challenges and remain open, because they have played an important role in educating African-Americans. As the oldest private HBCU, they teach students how to succeed, how to have the confidence and self-esteem that will help them compete with anyone. The HBCU experience is about more than academics. It’s about service. It’s about contributing. It’s about discovering who you are in an environment that truly wants you to succeed.

Two of my three children are graduates of HBCUs—Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla. (The third earned her bachelor and master’s degrees at a state university.) I’ve seen the difference the HBCU experience made in my daughters’ lives. When my husband and I first visited Bethune-Cookman with my youngest daughter, Olivia, I noticed the school motto etched into each doorway in the academic buildings: “Enter to learn, depart to serve.” I was sold. So was my daughter.

Marilyn Williams Pringle is a registered nurse in Cleveland. She attended Wilberforce in the early 1980s. 

When the Grambling State University football team refused to play this October, the eyes of collegiate sports turned to Louisiana and focused on a long-simmering problem at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs): underfunding.

Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, said in a recent op-ed that solving HBCU’s budgetary woes starts at the top. “Alumni need to be taught how to give and how to be philanthropic,” she wrote. “And this lesson must begin when alumni are students, during the first week of classes, and it needs to come directly from the president.”

One individual who has gotten the memo is Bennett College President Dr. Rosalind Fuse-Hall, who took the helm of her small liberal arts college in Greensboro, N.C., six months ago. She is continuing its momentum and is maintaining an impressive 20% annual contribution rate from graduates, beating out much larger and better known HBUCs such as Howard University.

Bennett College’s model is simple: touting the school’s strengths and aggressively soliciting donors. It isn’t as revolutionary as it is crucial. Funding for HBCUs has declined, while the day-to-day costs to run a university have soared, leading administrators to pursue to alumni giving more aggressively.

Nelson Bowman III, head of development for Texas’ Prairie View A&M University, is taking a different tact. In 2012, his HBCU rolled out a giving campaign for currently enrolled students with inspiring results—60% of freshmen pledged a gift.

“The potential has probably always been there,” Bowman wrote, “but we’ve only viewed them as students, overlooking their innate passion and willingness to engage.”

As the year concludes with a flurry of fund-raising appeals, some HBCUs have improved their pitches and upped their game. Much more than football is at stake.

by Chris Stevens

As a proud product of a Historically Black University (Delaware State, Class of 2007), I’ve watched with nervous eyes in recent months as 125-year-old St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., prepares to close June 30 after years of struggling to stay afloat financially. Howard University, according a board of trustee member, is in danger of the same fate.

The impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is undeniable. A recent study in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported:

  • One in five African-American college graduates earned their degrees at HBCUS.
  • Black colleges graduated nearly all black students (90 percent) who earned bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields between 2006 and 2010.
  • Black colleges produce half of all black public school teachers, half of all future lawyers, and eight in 10 black judges.

HBCUs have long had a history of making do. But the politics surrounding the disparity in funding and resources between HBCUs and traditional colleges and universities must be addressed. 

Most HBCUs exist because of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 that pushed for colleges focused on agricultural and mechanical education, especially in Southern states. Those colleges eventually became universities with larger academic concentrations serving a predominately Black population.

Even with assistance from the federal government, most HBCUs haven’t been able sustain themselves financially or raise a national profile. (Notable notable exceptions include Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, and Florida A&M.) On the whole, many HBCUs have more in common with schools like Atlanta’s Morris Brown College, which struggled to raise $500,000 to keep from closing in 2011.

One reason HBCUs struggle is the difficulty of fundraising toward endowment and the day-to-day costs of running a university. At HBCUs, almuni giving hovers under 10 percent; the national average for all schools is 14%. Another component is the frequent failure of municipal and state governments to allocate the same funds and resources to HBCUs that are afforded to traditional schools.

During my previous job as a sports writer for the Dover Post, the government reporter got in from a budget meeting for the state of Delaware with the official numbers for the fiscal year available. I asked him how much the state was giving the University of Delaware, and he responded with $113 million. Then I asked for the Delaware State University allocation, which was a grand total of $32 million. That disparity is the norm for HBCUs, especially in Southern states like Mississippi and Georgia, where officials haves either tried to consolidate or close Black colleges in recent years.

The mission of HBCUs (educating Blacks in order to help them succeed in a world in which we are still the minority) is as relevant today as it was in the Jim Crow era. We as HBCU alumni have to do a better job of giving, which will help city, state, and federal officials see our schools are viable and deserve equal funding and resources to compete with traditional colleges. 

As Morehouse president John Silvanus Williams, Jr said in an NPR interview this year, “There is no question that we need HBCUs. We just need them to do what they do better.”

Chris Stevens is a writer, podcaster, and social media consultant based in Wilmington, Delaware. He is a 2007 graduate of Delaware State University.