A question that leads most conversations about historically black colleges goes something like this: The purpose of black colleges was clear before Brown v. Board of Education, but now that black students can attend any college, why are these schools still necessary?
A few statistics give a rather clear answer. Despite the fact that black colleges (often referred to as HBCUs, or historically black colleges and universities) account for just 3 percent of four-year nonprofit colleges, their alumni account for roughly 80 percent of black judges and 50 percent of black lawyers and doctors, and their students account for 25 percent of black undergraduates who earn degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Even so, many of the institutions are struggling financially. Bennett College, an HBCU for women in North Carolina, recently launched a successful flash-fundraising drive to fight to retain its accreditation, which was ultimately rescinded anyway. (The university filed a lawsuit against its accreditor and retains accreditation while the case works its way through the courts.) The institutions often struggle to marshal the so-called transformational donations that other institutions receive, and public HBCUs, in particular, have been historically underfunded by state governments.
But the sector is not a monolith. Some institutions are private and have fewer than 1,000 students; and then there are the institutions such as North Carolina A&T, a public historically black college in North Carolina, with more than 11,000. On Tuesday, during the The Atlantic's Education Summit in Washington, D.C., Wayne Frederick, the president of Howard University, one of the nation’s most storied black colleges, spoke with me about why people still question the relevance of these institutions, what HBCUs can do to advocate for themselves, and, in light of a recent controversy involving white people walking their dogs on Howard’s campus, how gentrification is affecting the black college in the nation’s capital. The conversation that follows has been condensed for length and clarity. You can watch the full discussion here.