HBCUs are battling challenges that range from sliding enrollment to less-than-preferable graduation rates to losses in accreditation. Still, although they are not perfect, and deal with some of the same institutional campus crises facing predominantly white institutions, alumni of historically black colleges cite the appeal of their inclusive and tight-knit communities. While they represent just 3 percent of all colleges and universities, they enroll 11 percent of African American students in the United States. And what these universities do offer in excess is the opportunity for students to choose to prioritize their racial identity in a highly visible way.
Critics of HBCUs have called the institutions archaic, and their students unrealistic for choosing to support a system that isn’t reflective of the experiences they will have post-grad. “There’s no question around whether HBCUs are relevant,” Sekou Biddle, the vice president of advocacy for the United Negro College Fund, said at a conference last week. “The question is why don’t you know that HBCUs matter.” The answer to that question may be that HBCUs have been evaluated in a way that focuses much more on the “historical” than it does on the “black.” According to detractors, HBCUs have outlived their purpose. As minority students gained access to opportunities at mainstream colleges, the utility of supporting schools whose origins are rooted in segregation noticeably waned. Meanwhile, recent discussions have focused on the consequences of relying on “safe places”—places presumably like HBCUs—as a means of isolating students from experiences, such as racist activity, that have the potential to pose them any emotional harm. In their recent cover story for The Atlantic, "The Coddling of the American Mind," Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warn against these inclinations:
The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
Despite the fact that black college graduates overall have lower graduation rates and higher rates of unemployment, black graduates of HBCUs are more likely to be “thriving” than their peers at other institutions, according to a new Gallup poll. My colleague Gillian White has noted that the reports of greater social, financial, and community wellbeing could be linked to the culture of the most well-off HBCU campuses:
HBCU grads were substantially more likely to say that they had professors who cared about them and mentors who helped them pursue their goals. They also felt certain that their school prepared them well for post-grad life. These feelings may help help explain why alums of HBCUs are so much more likely (49 percent vs. 34 percent for black grads who didn’t attend HBCUs) to say that their university is the perfect place for someone similar to them, and why they have so much affinity for these institutions, despite the fact that many of these colleges and universities are struggling.
Indeed, HBCUs may have been created in response to a broken and segregated higher-education system, but many of their students may be thriving in part because they’ve continued to carve out the safe spaces that their cohorts at other institutions are still trying to prove matter. Morehouse, an all-male HBCU, says on their website that “after being ignored, stereotyped or marginalized, it’s about finally finding that “home” that, deep inside, you always knew existed, where you are the heart, soul and hope of the community. And where you are not alone.”