College Diversity and the Importance of HBCUs

By David Jose, Dean of College and Careers

College enrollment, across all races and ethnic groups, has increased almost exponentially in the last 40 years. Since the 1980s, the percentage of underrepresented minority students has more than doubled. Now, nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates are people of color. Yet, while more minority students are enrolling in college, graduation rates remain low. For the general population, the average six-year college graduation rate is concerningly low at 60%. For Black and Native American students, the six-year graduation rate is below 40%.

While many colleges and universities have indicated that diversity in enrollment is an institutional goal, quantitative and qualitative research tell us that enrolling underrepresented minority students into college is not the same as getting them through college. One of the most significant contributors to wealth inequality across racial lines is the reality that millions of low-income minority students leave college without a degree, often saddled with crippling student loan payments. That’s not to say things are hopeless, but just an indication that there is a lot of room for improvement in higher education in supporting a diverse student population.

For BVP alumni, this has meant leaving an intentionally diverse educational setting in high school to attend institutes of higher learning where the campuses with diversity don’t feel that diverse at all. More concerning is that according to the social mobility index, which measures the extent to which colleges educate economically disadvantaged students and graduate them into well-paying jobs, the U.S. “provides the least economic opportunity and mobility for its citizens” among developed countries.

Are there any diverse colleges? Sure, there are plenty that work towards building a diverse population, and many that are working to improve their institution’s poor performance in this area each year. According to the U.S. News & World Report diversity index, the ten most diverse colleges in America are:

  1. The University of Hawaii at Hilo
  2. Andrews University
  3. Rutgers University – Newark
  4. University of Nevada Las Vegas
  5. Stanford University
  6. University of San Francisco
  7. City College of New York
  8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  9. The University of Hawaii at Manoa
  10. University of Houston

Yet, while these schools have made tremendous strides in building a diverse population of students, there is a frightening trend of a lack of economic diversity at these institutions of higher education while also having graduation rates for BIPOCs still hovering around or under 40%.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are designed to ensure BIPOCs are fairly and adequately represented in the higher education experience. For minority students, these institutions offer a safe haven for celebrating Black culture and identity in an unyieldingly challenging ecosystem to navigate for underrepresented minority students. Below is an excerpt from Elle Magazine on the importance of supporting HBCUs. You can read the complete article here.

“But today, many of these colleges [HBCUs] are woefully under-resourced, having experienced the steepest declines in federal funding per student between 2003 and 2015. They are often ignored by the big philanthropic donors; their endowments are 70 percent smaller than those of non-HBCUs. All of this, despite the work they do to change the intellectual and financial trajectory of their students, who are often underserved in K–12 schools. HBCUs represent 3 percent of the nation’s colleges, but graduate about 20 percent of all Black undergrads, and 25 percent of those with STEM degrees. Nearly 75 percent of HBCU students are eligible for Pell Grants, and over half are first-generation college students—yet HBCUs are better at retaining this population than non-HBCUs.

In recent months, the nation has finally turned its attention to HBCUs and their critical importance in society. In part, that is because of the role HBCU graduates played in the 2020 election. Kamala Harris [Howard University] is now the nation’s first Black vice president … In a moment where we are renegotiating the meaning of race in our society, HBCU graduates, particularly Black women, have emerged with the answers and as the answers. … Indeed, one of the most important political stories of 2020 is how Black women who graduated from Black colleges are changing everyone’s understanding of innovative political leadership.”

“It has become quite commonplace to discount young people as apathetic and HBCUs as relics of a different era, but [we have been] remind[ed in recent years] that the legacy of HBCUs is to teach our nation what it means to expand the meaning of the values enshrined in the Constitution. … HBCUs kept educating the sons and daughters of former slaves and encouraging their patriotic right to challenge institutions that did not include them.

HBCUs are incubators for Black leaders because they give students spaces to explore all aspects of themselves, away from racial judgments and stereotypes. Here, Black students can make mistakes and challenge authority while pledging sororities and working in student government, and no one questions the role of race in their success, because there is no doubt that Blacks can be high-achieving. There are no accusations of affirmative action and tokenism in admissions. And if we want to continue to rely on Black women to save America from its worst impulses, we must be committed to sustaining the HBCUs that serve as their training ground.”

Additional Resources

As always, the BVPHS College and Career Team is here to support the BVP community as scholars think about their postsecondary options. To learn more about higher education and postsecondary options available to students and talk about diversity and HBCUs, scholars are encouraged to schedule a meeting with the College and Career Team.

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