Watch Our New Jury Honor Our Class of 2024 In This Announcement Video


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.”

A play about the realities of black students at Harvard University debuts Friday at the Black Arts Festival on the Harvard campus. Hosted by various multicultural campus organizations, the “I, Too, Am Harvard” performance focuses on the daily microaggressions black students face at the predominately white university. (The most recent university data puts the black student population at 5.2 percent of the 21,000-plus student body.)

“As far back as I could remember, I’ve always been pretty cognizant of race,” one student remarked in the 5-minute promo video. “But this past semester was uncomfortable because it was the first time in a long time that I felt the burden of being black in the classroom and being black walking around Harvard’s campus…This year, I just felt like ‘the other.'”

The corresponding #ITooAmHarvard campaign has launched on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr to further the conversation.

Students at Harvard aren’t the only ones using social media to spread their message of isolation and frustration. In the fall of 2013, the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan flooded Twitter with the #BBUM hashtag (which stands for “being black at University of Michigan”). Three months later, they organized a “Speak Out” protest that drew more than 1,000 attendees on campus. Earlier this year, UCLA junior Sy Stokes’ spoken word video went viral with the assertion that his school has more NCAA championships than black male freshmen.

What do you make of these movements? Is social media a strong medium for drawing attention to these matters?

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.

This August 14, the graduate program at Case Western Reserve University for a Masters of Finance will welcome 60 new students, culled from more than 1,000 applicants. This entering class will be 95 percent Chinese, all international students eager to learn about securities and capital markets that are newly applicable in their homeland.

This dramatic demographic shift has its echo in American undergraduate ranks. U.S. colleges and universities are enrolling a surge of new students from China, tripling in the last three years, according to data from the Institute of International Education. The first-year class at Case will include 135-150 new international students, the largest cohort in the Cleveland university’s history. The vast majority will be from China.

These students—more than 100,000 in California alone—contributed $21 billion to the U.S. economy in 2011-12, but the fit is tricky and the trend is stirring debate, said Nancy Abelmann, a professor of Asian-American studies and a vice chancellor for research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“In the midst of this national debate, not lost is the fact that international students are cash cows,” she said July 9 during a webinar for college admissions staff entitled “Today’s Chinese Students.”

Typically, international students pay full freight and are ineligible for U.S. government aid. “We’re in something akin to the gold rush, a frontier-style environment where college and universities, like prospectors in the 1800s, realize that there is gold out there,” said David Hawkins, the director of public policy at the National Association for College Admissions and Counseling, in an interview with the New York Times.

The webinar, sponsored by NAFSA: Association of International Educators, picked Abelmann as keynoter to give preliminary findings from her anthropological study of some 200-250 students on her own campus. “Changing demographics is really changing the meaning of diversity on campus,” she said. “And the rise of international students coincides with a dip in under-represented domestic minorities.” International students now outnumber American minorities on her campus, she said, and the pattern is spreading across North America.

Faculty can be particularly baffled by this shift. Abelmann said colleagues often ask, “Who made this decision? Who is in charge? And what are we doing about it?”

Language barriers can erode a professor’s confidence and a student’s participation in class. This disconnect can bleed into the social realm. Many U.S. campuses have a club for Chinese-American students speaking English and another for Chinese international students speaking Mandarin.

Another challenge is falsified documents. Zinch China, a consulting company that advises U.S. college administrators about China, published a 2010 report based on interviews with 250 Beijing high school students bound for America. The study concluded that 90 percent of Chinese applicants submitted false recommendations, 70 percent hired others to write their personal essays, and half used forged high school transcripts.

Such findings require context and discernment: one webinar panel addressed “Evaluating Chinese credentials.” For generations, Abelmann said, the United States has attracted “a population of students who went to upper-tier Chinese universities and come here to graduate school. They are very, very different from the fee-paying undergraduate population, which is a wealthier population with different intellectual preparation. Adjusting to this very different new group of undergraduates has been a challenge.”

Abelmann and her colleagues call this new group “indifferent globalizers,” who don’t seek out America’s multi-cultural waters. “Indifferent globalizers have an aversion to building multi-cultural social lives,” she said. “They like the comfort of exclusivity and don’t see why they should apologize.”

Like many in the world, Chinese students perceive Asian economies as creating the best opportunities, and many plan to make their careers at home. “It may be that one reason the students are not so oriented to older models of integration here is that many students don’t intend to stay,” said Adrienne Lo, an anthropology professor and colleague of Abelmann’s at the University of Illinois.

Two days after the women addressed the webinar participants, University of Delaware undergraduate Jianwe Ke described his U.S. collegiate life. He said he traveled to Newark because he wanted applied knowledge in electrical engineering, not more of the theoretical emphasis he had at home. “And,” he added, “in the U.S., there are not so many obstacles between you and your dream.”

Liya Huang is majoring in hospitality management at the College of the Desert in Riverside, Calif., “Before I came here,” she said, “I had no idea of U.S. colleges. I thought it would be similar; I found it was totally different. Chinese universities give you the schedule. You don’t pick the classes you want.”

Abelmann stressed there is much variability among students, and across campuses. The University of California-Irvine serves fifth generation Chinese-American students, and American schools of engineering are often ahead of other departments in retaining and serving students from abroad.

Both Ke and Huang spoke poignantly about making American friends, although not as easily or as deeply as they would like. Huang said orientation at her campus was a wonderful icebreaker full of practical, useful advice. Ke said he joined no clubs, but had found a friend is his lab partner.

“I interested him in Chinese food and he interested me in African-American food,” Ke said. “I have been to his house several times. In the U.S. – how to say? – it gives you many cultures. I can have a beautiful adventure.”