This past weekend as I scrolled through Facebook, I stumbled across an article related to my alumni, Virginia State University, with the headline “VSU in trouble” and it was highlighting the financial burden and cutbacks imposed and the doom it faces if things aren’t changed. This sounded all too familiar to me, like another Virginia HBCU, St. Paul’s College. I began to read about other HBCUs and discovered some similar issues happening at other schools including Howard University (which is one of the prominent HBCU’s in the country). Then I came across an article that discussed whether HBCU’s are still viable anymore as if to say HBCU’s are teaching a different education than a non-HBCU, or an education that’s no longer relevant to society. So let’s explore why we have come to this thinking and what are we to do about this.
Let’s be clear HBCU’s should not have to state their relevance to be considered valuable just like a black teen should not have to state his use to society in order to not be gunned down. This is merely to see how we have come to the point and how we should refocus our thinking on this topic.
One of the biggest historical moves that put our institutions in jeopardy was integration. As good intently as it was, integration also reflected poorly on our psychological and academic independence. The fight for integration alone suggested that we needed to attend a white college in order to be granted the proper education. We knew separate was not entirely equal and so instead of asking for the funding to build our own schools to be equal or better, we instead fought to integrate. The psychological damage that this told us, was one that suggested we were not educators, less resourceful, and did not possess the capabilities to be independent. Although some intentions may have been to play the game to change the game, or better yet take the education from them and bring it back to our people, we forgot that overtime being taught by a culture that taught you the good of them and never the bad, made you look at your own people as if they were the problem, and gaining status etc. made people forget that purpose. Integration may have its immediate benefits, but long-term culture aspects suffered. Integration also took away some of the best African-American minds and sent them to these universities that do not cater to African-Americans particularly, and schools that at one point did not even allow African-Americans. Even despite research studies that suggest blacks with a HBCU education fair better than blacks with a non-HBCU education, I have to ask my people of color why are we in such a rush to join forces with people who are not as eager to attend a HBCU, why are we trying to force a relationship from people who has no need to form a relationship with you (I would say this is an individual thing, but ask how many people not of color had a HBCU on their list of schools and it doesn’t have to be about the HBCU tag just the school that’s a HBCU)? The past should not stop us from trying to bridge the gap, but you have to realize when the gap is only trying to be closed on one side. Now I understand the current limitations for advanced degrees at HBCU’s, I myself have had to deal with this when pursuing an advanced degree, but it speaks about the limited resources currently available. Integration should not have been JUST about attending any school of your choice despite your race, but also about receiving justifiable funding and resources for black institutions to be able to build up and be competitive to its counterparts, that’s what JUSTICE and EQUALITY is. You cannot say anyone is equal if you already have a head start and that’s what non-HBCU’s had over HBCUs.
The second biggest threat to HBCU’s is the lack of alumni support. This lack of alumni support is not entirely at the fault of the person, but more on the current economic and academic structure we have today. Alumni support hovers around just 20 percent with some institutions being as low 1-3 percent. But let’s further explore this aspect. HBCU enrollment has dropped dramatically from 90% in the 60s to 12% today. You cannot ask from people you do not have. You also can not ask students to enroll in schools that are not there, when HBCU’s are being shut down across the country with 5 shutting down in the last 20 years including St Paul’s College in 2013 and more coming under the threat of financial uncertainty. African-Americans do not have excess to wealth in America like their white counterparts. In fact studies show that blacks hold a higher rate of unemployment compared to their counterparts and have a hard time finding a job. One study even suggest that blacks without a criminal record have a harder time getting a call back than whites with a criminal background. With this type of data one has to imagine, are we really given a chance to give back, is America itself deliberately ruining HBCU’s? Furthermore with the rate of debt increasing from student loans, alumni today just don’t have enough in the budget to give back for a degree that cost them so much to begin with. This, aligned with the struggling job market for people of color; ability to give back is not entirely possible.
The third reason that I’ve seen the failure of a HBCU and that is the willingness to catching up NOW which should’ve happened 50 years ago. Our current HBCU’s are constantly trying to renovate their dorm halls and classrooms, build up their athletic fields and programs, building convocation buildings and all things in between just to maintain a sense of attraction to upcoming students while their current students and future are being passed the financial burden. We are now trying to build up to be competitive and great for future students on our own dollars, with the limited alumni support and government funding. And because we’re starting from behind we have to understand this is a turtle race in financial and academic stability not a rabbit race. But we also must remember the need for continued to progression, just not all at once. I’ve even witnessed my old alumni building up new buildings year after year without acknowledging the bigger you are the more it cost to run. And now enrollment has dropped by 500 students due to new restrictions and tuition cost, so much so that certain dorms are closed and their just aren’t enough students to fill beds. Although I do not want to see them fall to the demise of not expanding ever like St Paul’s college, I do think decreasing renovations is the current answer.
HBCU’s weren’t just colleges that catered to blacks during segregation and to be forgotten shortly after, they continue to be an intricate and formidable institution for students to be taught by those who identify with them, and to continue the truths of history that America is eager to forget about African-Americans. The rising tuition cost and expenses from college have contributed to declining HBCU enrollment, with the thinking “if someone is going to pay 20k for college a year, let it be a college with resources and opportunity”, which I admit may be understandable. HBCU’s also give low-income students an opportunity at education, education that should be free to grow this country. To take away education, an HBCU education, is to rob every African-American forward, to erase or alter our history, remove or disband our community, and to keep blacks in a state of dependency. As one of my mentors mentioned to me back in 2009 “Soon there will be a time where only those who can afford education will receive education”.