Last week, the New York Times college admissions and aid blog, The Choice, solicited readers for questions on US historically-black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These 105 HBCUs, primarily in the southern US, were defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as institutions of higher learning established prior to 1964 whose principal mission was and is the education of black Americans.
Answering questions received last week are African-American education expert, Dr. Marybeth Gasman, of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College, a private HBCU in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I admire both of these educators: Gasman’s work has provided me with an education on the history and relevance of HBCUs and President Kimbrough is one of the youngest college presidents in the US, dedicated to “cultivating a new generation of academically accomplished and socially conscious African-American students.” Kimbrough also maintains an active blog.
Both Gasman and Kimbrough were recognized by Diverse Issues in Higher Education among The Top 25 to Watch, a list that also included Princeton University professor and frequent TV commentator, Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who also writes for The Nation.
The first round of answers appear today at The Choice. Therein they tackle the first topic that comes up in any conversation, even among African Americans: what purpose do HBCUs serve today?
Historically black colleges and universities offer a choice to African-Americans and other students. For African-Americans, in particular, they offer an environment that tends to be free of white racism and daily racial aggressions.
This kind of environment can be wonderfully empowering; students are not distracted from learning. In addition, students find many role models who look like them and in many cases have similar backgrounds. This, again, is empowering. Historically black colleges and universities offer small classes and dedicated faculty members who spend ample time outside the classroom with students. . .
. . .Spelman and another all-female black college, Bennett College for Women, in North Carolina, are responsible for sending 50 percent of black women into graduate science programs. Other historically black colleges and universities have similar success stories. Xavier University of Louisiana offers another example in terms of its success in the area of preparation for medical school. This small school, which sustained significant damage during Hurricane Katrina, sends about 100 students to medical school each year, more than any other college or university in the country.
Kimbrough responded primarily to a question on how HBCUs remain competitive in recruiting top students when African Americans are now aggressively recruited at Ivy League schools. In answering, he also comments on the continued need of HBCUs:
Lots of institutions are now boasting about programs that ensure lower- and middle-class students can attend at no cost, but few have reported the success of these programs with raw numbers. The reason? Very few students are benefiting because they still want a certain student, and bringing in lots of solid students with lower [standardized] scores will hurt rankings.
But on a more basic level, there is still a great deal of racial tension on college campuses these days. The “Compton Cookout” party at U.C. San Diego (and subsequent noose on campus) and the littering of the cultural center lawn with cotton balls at the University of Missouri — both within the last month — remind students and their families that there is a chance they may enter an environment filled with daily racial micro-aggressions like these.
A free ride is great, but peace of mind is priceless.
About two years ago, we also posted a blogger round-up of answers to this question.