Historically Black Colleges and Universities face a cultural identity crisis

·3 min read

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are seeing a new wave of substantial donations and interest from big-name talent, but the attention has also highlighted questions of cultural identity.

Why it matters: In the past decade, flagging enrollment at HBCUs, founded to offer Black people access to higher education during the slavery era, has led schools to actively recruit non-Black students.

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  • That trend has raised concerns among Black alumni and students who want to make sure the HBCU legacy — and its focus on the Black experience — continues.

The big picture: Most Black students choose HBCUs because they feel a sense of kinship with the colleges' culture and community, said Robert Palmer, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard University.

  • "This HBCU is a place that we came to, to be around folks who are like us, our culture, our experiences, who can relate to our issues, and also to have a sense of being uplifted," he said.

  • But it’s also why “there's a sense that [non-Black students] are invaders,” he noted.

The backstory: Three higher ed schools dedicated to Black students were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the early 1800s. But schools for Black students didn't flourish until after 1890, when a law required states either to show that race was not a factor in admissions or to provide separate land-grant institutions for people of color.

  • After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Black students had more options and enrolled in non-HBCUs.

  • The schools had to ensure strong enrollment by marketing themselves differently, per TIME, to cover costs for new facilities, faculty or activities.

By the numbers: Today, the growth of more than 100 HBCUs is concentrated in the South and on the East Coast, alongside over 500 Hispanic-Serving Institutions; roughly 30 Tribal Colleges and Universities; and around 100 Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions.

State of play: Enrollment at HBCUs over the decades has increasingly included non-Black students, federal data shows.

  • In 2018, non-Black students were 24% of enrollment at HBCUs, compared with 15% in 1976.

  • As HBCUs sought out more non-Black students, a handful — such as West Virginia State University and Bluefield State College — became predominantly white, leading to racial tensions.

What they’re saying: When a traditionally Black space becomes predominantly white, its identity and culture inevitably change, research shows.

  • Baigen Seawell, a 2019 West Virginia State University graduate, told Axios that white students typically don’t know the university’s history and why it was necessary to begin with.

  • On-campus incidents — including the administration's delayed response to George Floyd's death, a white professor's racist rant, and the presence of the controversial right-wing group Turning Point USA — have also made Black students feel unsafe and disillusioned, while Black alumni are worried "we're losing our HBCU," Seawell said.

Black students at WVSU do at times think they’re missing out on the "HBCU experience," said Joey Oden, a WVSU alum who now serves as the university’s vice president of student affairs.

  • But there is no one clear definition of the HBCU experience, and HBCUs’ evolution is a reflection of that, he noted.

  • What matters is that non-Black HBCU students make it their responsibility to lift up their Black peers, Seawell said. "Do your due diligence on what you’re trying to be a part of."

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