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Why HBCUs Are Models of Equity and Innovation in Higher Education

In the wake of both the sustained demonstrations of civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd and a global pandemic, higher education has seen renewed commitments and new prioritizations to racial equity. Throughout 2020, the public saw myriad colleges and companies release statements taking a stance against racism, some vowing to address issues of systemic racism and underrepresentation on their campuses. 

This is a particularly daunting task for higher education institutions, as lost funding related to campus closings leaves institutions with fewer resources to address challenges. Remarkably, at the intersection of demands to address inequity and precarious financial situations, the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which have long suffered from severe underfunding, have emerged as models for the future.  

Success during the pandemic

Numerous HBCUs have been touted for their success in safely housing and educating students throughout the pandemic, with HBCUs maintaining lower COVID-19 infection rates during operation. Related to racial equity, HBCUs, largely founded in the South during the era of Jim Crow, are the only type of institutions in the nation with founding missions to increase racial equity by ensuring Black people have access to higher education. These missions are demonstrated in their success serving Black students, particularly first-generation and low-income students labeled “at-risk” by other institutions. 

Where other school’s struggle to educate first-generation students, we see equal economic success from HBCU first-generation students and the larger population, and larger gains in social mobility. In 2018, the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy found that HBCU students achieve more upward mobility, in many cases almost double that of non-minority serving institutions (MSIs). Even in the pandemic, we’ve seen HBCUs mobilize to support underserved students and communities, providing everything from emergency aid and gas cards, to community COVID-19 tests, and now vaccine distribution.  

Model for the new normal

Taken together, equity-centered missions, success with social mobility, and innovation engendered by doing more with less spotlights HBCUs as possibility models in this new normal for higher education. As organizations move to rapidly develop programs and partnerships with HBCUs, and institutions regroup to implement common HBCU practices to achieve their goals around equity, it’s important to consider that the approaches to working with institutions working on behalf of Black students and communities requires a culturally relevant approach.

Organizations seeking to partner with HBCUs and serve Black students will not simply be able to copy practices from work with highly resourced institutions serving privileged institutions, and paste them into their work with HBCUs. Similarly, institutions endeavoring to practice equity should prepare for transformational change in their approach to be successful with underserved student groups. Using HBCUs as success models requires attention to mission, history, resources, and — most importantly — attention to the students and communities they serve.  

Culturally relevant practice

In UNCF’s recent research report “Culturally Relevant Practice: Implementation Among Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” UNCF highlights a successful HBCU and organizational partnership aimed at ensuring more HBCU students are “engaged to learn and ready to earn,” and the importance of a culturally relevant and purposeful approach to partnering. As the entire field pivots to an increased focus on underserved students, institutional success will require the incorporation of these practices. 

Not only does historical context remain pertinent, but current issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including ravaged family finances, and mental and physical health concerns, disproportionately affect already underserved students, with 37 percent of HBCU students reporting a decline in their mental well-being due to the stresses associated with COVID-19. 

The higher education field has much to learn about racial equity, operating with insufficient support, and forced innovation from HBCUs, but success will require substantially different approaches.  

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