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The Voice of the Black Community

Local & State

Shifting national demographics means changes in HBCUs' strategy
Competiton for top students means exploring options
Published Wednesday, April 25, 2018 10:41 am
by Herbert L. White

Campus life at historically black colleges, like Johnson C. Smith University’s homecoming party, are part of their appeal.

Second in the series "College Course: The Future of HBCUs."

Historically black colleges are rooted in community.

As the bedrock of economic advancement of African Americans for the better part of a century, HBCUs have been the gateway for a better life for people who were shut out of mostly-white institutions. The success of alumni is a point of pride, affirmation they can compete in the larger society.

“It seems like we’re all like a big family,” said Arabia Deablo, a 2014 Berry Academy graduate and senior at Winston-Salem State University.

But the family is evolving as doors previously closed to African Americans open, and with it an ongoing debate about the worth of black-oriented institutions. Changing demographics and fiscal pressures mean more campus diversity as whites enroll in larger numbers, especially for graduate programs. Latinos, many of them first-generation collegians, are joining them. The result is a mix of cultures that traditionalists find a challenge to what makes black colleges unique.

Open to all
America is getting browner. Demographers predict whites will be the minority by 2050 as African Americans, Latinos and Asians create a nation of color.
The percentage of white children ages 5-17 dropped from 62 percent in 2000 to 53 percent in 2013 while the number of black children fell from 15 percent to 14 percent, according to a 2016 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. The percentage of Hispanic children jumped from 16 to 24 percent during the same span while the number of Asians rose from 3 percent to 5 percent.

Colleges are scrambling to lure the cream of the 18- to 24-year-old crop to their campuses, but there are fewer traditional college-age students. As a result, schools are taking new approaches to bring students to campus as well as growing their online presence.

“As institutions, we’re all in the crosswinds of things that are well beyond our control,” Johnson C. Smith University President Clay Armbrister said. “The decline in 18- to 24-year-olds is one of the factors. Another is what’s going on in the national public discourse about investment in education, or as I would describe it, the disinvestment in education, from public policymakers and others. It is unbelievable to me that a country where we are supposed to have all these bright people we are not investing in education.”

Black colleges, especially liberal arts campuses, are scrambling to adjust. Although they account for 106 schools among more than 4,000 U.S. colleges – 3 percent – HBCUs produce 17 percent of African Americans who earn bachelor’s degrees, 24 percent of degrees earned by blacks in science fields and more than half of the nation’s black teachers.

“You have only about 8 percent of the black population going to HBCUs,” said Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. “There are HBCUs that are attracting top black students, but prior to the end of legalized segregation, HBCUs had a corner on the market. Now African Americans have lots and lots of choices. There are a lot of majority institutions throwing money their way that are trying to get the very best African American students, so it becomes more difficult because HBCUs don’t have the institutional aid to give students that majority institutions have.”  

Even with economic challenges, black colleges maintain their historic mission to provide academic opportunity and rigor in a close-knit environment. Deablo was a skeptic until she settled in at WSSU.

“At first I was against going to an HBCU because I thought it would be like high school again,” she said. “Of course, freshman year it did, but as I was able to transition to my maturity and grow older with my class, I was like ‘Man, it really does feel like a family.’ I may not even know a person personally, but if I hear about someone I came in with freshman year and is doing great things, whether they got a job or going to grad school, I’m really excited for them because I was able to see their experience and their growth from a distance.”

Chasing best, brightest
In order to remain relevant and solvent, HBCUs face hard decisions on admissions standards, mission and demographics. The total college enrollment for white 18- to 24-year-olds in 2013 was 42 percent compared to 34 percent for blacks and Hispanics. The white-Hispanic enrollment gap narrowed from 18 percentage points in 2003 to 8 points in 2013 while the black-white gap didn’t change. African American enrollment as percentage of total U.S. enrollment increased from 10 to 15 percent between 1990 and 2013.

The presence of students from other ethnic groups – notably whites – rankle some HBCU proponents who see their campuses as safe spaces free of racial animus that pervades other campuses and society as a whole. Deablo, for instance, points to WSSU’s nationally recognized nursing program as a magnet for whites looking to earn a degree. The impact is felt when black students who lack the academic credentials coming out of high school apply for admission.

“Not only will it change the blackness, it’ll change the criteria,” she said. “HBCUs were designed for African Americans who could not get into [predominantly white institutions], and that’s true today where there’s a student who has a 2.0 and may be able to get into an HBCU but can’t get into a PWI. So, the more white people are coming in, they’re changing the requirements for admission, and that’s not just black people. It’s people of color. Hispanics haven’t always been afforded the opportunity to go to a PWI.”

In North Carolina, the General Assembly has been part of the mainstreaming of HBCUs, to black college supporters chagrin. Lawmakers have at various points over the last four decades argued over proposals to merge historically black N.C. A&T State University with UNC Greensboro; renaming Fayetteville State University UNC-Fayetteville and reducing tuition at HBCUs in order to boost admissions. Students and alumni fear state-supported schools are at risk of the academic version of gentrification. It’s already happened in West Virginia where West Virginia State University and Bluefield State College in Beckley are majority white. WVSU is 65 percent white, while BSC is 81 percent white.

“That’s my concern about HBCUs, that we’re going to lose our traditional feel,” Deablo said. “When people go to our university will they understand or be able to feel the experience of a historically black university or will they see it as another university.”

No longer the exclusive domain of African Americans, HBCUs are forced to think outside the box. While America’s largest and more prestigious schools can lean on a larger and deeper pool of funding, such as grants, alumni giving and government funding to lure students, more HBCUs are looking at new initiatives, such as opening their campuses to community meeting spaces and strengthening corporate ties.

“The Stanfords, the Penns, they’re going to have to find other ways to get it, but Penn has a billion-dollar [fundraising] campaign,” said Armbrister, a University of Pennsylvania graduate and former executive at Johnson Hopkins and Temple universities. “We don’t have that luxury, so we’re going to have to be smart about how we invest the few dollars that we get, then we have to continue to produce results, but there are people out there who are willing to invest in HBCUs and institutions that produce results.”

Black colleges are also struggling to build academic programs that keep pace with changing student demands. Growing in-demand majors and amenities are often the difference between stagnation and growth.

“Young people today, they are impressed with and moved by bling-bling, you know,” said U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Charlotte Democrat and co-chair of the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus. “Everything that glitters is gold, so they’re looking for facilities that are accommodating in a way that they’ve been used to. That is a challenge because we may not have the kind of facilities that they’re used to, but I can tell you we do more with little, but we have to make our campuses more attractive.”

Gasman adds HBCUs’ future may hinge on their ability to establish niches by focusing specifically on producing scientists, educators or entrepreneurs.
“It becomes difficult when you don’t have a focused mission,” she said. “If you do a lot of different things, it becomes very, very difficult. I think there are schools that have a focused mission at HBCUs and they do a much better job if they focus on a few things and do really well in those areas.”

A&T is a prime example among North Carolina campuses. The Greensboro school, which enrolled a record 11,877 students in the fall, is a national leader in producing engineers of color as well as other science-related fields and agriculture.

“They put their effort into those STEM programs and they do a really good job,” Gasman said. “They’re all in. When you mention STEM and HBCUs, everybody thinks North Carolina A&T.”

Adams, an A&T graduate, is pushing for more federal support to black colleges, which she said are necessary for the education and economic well being of the country.

“All of these schools are unique in terms of their purposes, so I don’t think big makes it better, although I’m real proud of A&T,” said Adams, who taught art history for 40 years at Greensboro’s Bennett College, a historically black school for women. “I think there are a tremendous amount of advantages to being on a small, liberal arts campus. I got to know all my students, got to give them the kind of personal attention that many of our first-generation college students need. I don’t think it’s necessarily a detriment.”

That attention to growth is what makes WSSU a good fit for Deablo, who studied abroad in Kenya and India as part of her curriculum as a social work major. She’s not sure she would’ve gotten the same result elsewhere.

“My experience has been really, really good in terms of my relation to academic performance,” Deablo said. “My professors really care. If you don’t come to class, your professors won’t chase you down, but they’re like ‘why didn’t you come to class?’ I was talking to a friend from UNC Charlotte [who said] professors didn’t care if you do or don’t come; they don’t text or email and ask why you didn’t come. They don’t even realize you’re gone, which I thought was pretty interesting.”

Next: Paying forward.


Opportunity and challenges integral to HBCUs’ mission and legacy


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