But UPenn’s Wilson, who grew up thinking that mentors expected less of black students, enrolled at Alcorn for a different reason. “I really wanted to figure out: Is all the negativity about young black kids true? Or is it a bunch of nonsense?”
Wilson was impressed by what he found at Alcorn, where the student body is 93 percent African American. “In high school I had a B-plus average, but I was sitting in classrooms with students who were valedictorians of their classes,” he said. Academic excellence was the norm at Alcorn, Wilson said, and he was even more surprised to find that he could hold his own. Wilson felt reaffirmed both as an individual and as a black man trying to enter the sciences.
Still, some HBCUs have struggled to break even and maintain their good reputations in recent years. All of them accept non-black students—some, like West Virginia State University, no longer serve majority-black student populations—but HBCUs still tend to be less racially diverse than other institutions. This lack of diversity can hinder students who are trying to get jobs in industries where connections are helpful, wrote Ciandre Taylor, who attended the HBCU Morris Brown for one year before transferring to a non-HBCU, in a recent article. “I knew I wouldn’t work in an all-black environment, so there’s a con in attending an HBCU.”
Plenty of students still find good reasons to opt for HBCUs. These colleges charge lower tuitions (the average tuition for the top 10 HBCUs is around $19,000 per year) and offer students ample financial aid. But as a result HBCUs also tend to have lower endowments and fewer resources than other institutions, obstacles that can compromise the labs where science students learn. “We have very good equipment, but we may not have the most cutting-edge equipment on the market,” said Lorraine Fleming, dean of the College of Engineering and Architectural Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Talented professors, she says, make up for this disparity through creative use of multimedia, ensuring that students understand how to analyze the data they collect in any lab facility.
But many HBCUs offer extra support that may help offset these challenges. Some institutions, for example, incorporate training in soft skills to help students succeed in STEM. At Howard University, introductory engineering courses emphasize professionalism, focusing on the way students present themselves via social media and other places online—ensuring that students don’t use email addresses “like firstname.lastname@example.org,” Fleming said. Katherine Harper, a biology professor at West Virginia State University, emphasized the value of the personal mentorship she can offer her students because of small class sizes. Indeed, like many other institutions these historically black schools place a strong focus on communication, teaching students that they must be able to articulately present and write about their work in order to be successful in STEM fields. HBCUs start this training early, sending students to present their research at events such as the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students and the meeting of the National Society of Black Engineers.