Highlighting HBCUs as drivers of equity and examples of student support

Co-author: Amber Barnett, associate director of holistic student supports

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have played an important role in increasing equitable access to higher education for Black Americans, and they remain essential engines of community growth.

According to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), HBCUs make up 3 percent of America’s colleges and universities but they produce 20 percent of America’s Black graduates. They expand access to traditionally underserved learners, such as low-income and first-generation college students: of the more than 300,000 students who attend HBCUs each year, more than 70 percent qualify for federal Pell Grants.

HBCUs can also offer Black students holistic supports and opportunities that contribute to their success. Dr. Earl S. Richardson, president emeritus, distinguished professor, and senior research associate at Morgan State University (Baltimore, MD) generously shared his experiences with Achieving the Dream in a panel discussion about the importance and promise of HBCUs on Thursday. When he enrolled at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, he was the first in his family to attend college. He said of his experience at UMES, “I give it credit for who I am and what I have been. First, because of the nurturing I got there.”

Amber Barnett, associate director for holistic student supports at Achieving the Dream, said that the culture of nurturing and support was a significant part of her experience attending HBCUs, both for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. “You are everyone’s responsibility,” she said.

Students’ experiences at HBCUs can differ from those at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), where pedagogy and culture are often rooted in systems inextricably linked to (and stemming from) racial inequity. Many Black students — and students of other minoritized groups — encounter the added cognitive load of code switching on campus, or of feeling like they must act as “representative” for their community when they’re the only member of their race in the classroom. But as a Black student at an HBCU, Barnett said, “there’s a burden that’s lifted. You are no longer speaking for your entire race in a room of students who don’t look like you.” Learning environments where each student feels supported, valued, and gains a sense of belonging, are critical to promoting student success and advancing equity in higher education.

As Dr. Richardson said, “The role of Black institutions is to help this nation make higher education accessible to all of its students.” This is a mission shared by Achieving the Dream and its Network colleges. Regardless of whether they are designated as minority-serving institutions, all community colleges can learn from the example of HBCUs as they work to transform their student supports to ensure that each student is set up to succeed.


 

The ATD Network includes three HBCUs:


FURTHER LEARNING

Read about the history of HBCUs from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

Black History Month: Teaching the Complete History from Learning for Justice includes a downloadable learning plan.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities (2018) is a documentary by Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams that tells the powerful story of the rise, influence, and evolution of HBCUs.

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