From Kamala Harris to Stacy Abrams to Raphael Warnock, HBCU alums have been in the news lately. And I hope that people pay as much attention to HBCUs as they do to to these politicians. Because Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been historically undervalued. There are a lot of misconceptions about these important pillars of Black society in America, so I hope to dispel some of them and show you how they play a huge (& hugely under appreciated) role in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). For instance, did you know that more than 1/3 of Black STEM PhD earners attended an HBCU in undergrad? HBCUs are doing incredible work on shoestring budgets, and, without giant endowments like the Ivies have, they’re being slammed hard by the coronavirus. So I thought I’d do a post on why HBCUs deserve more recognition (and let’s face it, more $).⠀

As of 2018, there were 101 HBCUs in America, 51 public & 50 private, educating 20 million students, 76% of whom were Black I’m going to start by hitting you with the facts about some of the ways in which HBCUs are benefitting students academically, especially in STEM. And then later in the post, I’m going to talk more about the importance of HBCUs in general and how, as a White person it can be hard to really “see the need” for them – and how it can be hard to see a lot of things when you’re in the majority and you take for granted privileges you did nothing to earn, when you look around and everyone looks like you. This “everyone looks like me” is not the case for Black students at most colleges. Most non-HBCU colleges & universities in America – hell, basically most institutions of any kind – in America are “historically White.”  In terms of the mostly-white schools, instead of calling them “HWCUs” they’re given the acronym of “Predominantly White Institution” (PWI) – don’t ask me why. And these PWIs are largely failing Black people. ⠀

Despite entering college and fairly similar levels (in the year 2018, 37% of Black people in the 18-24-year-old range were enrolled in college, compared to 42% of their White peers ), Black people are graduating at much lower levels (about 26% of Black STEM majors leave without graduating, compared compared to 13% of white STEM majors (data from a recent study analyzing people who enrolled in the 2003-2004 academic year) )⠀

When I went to look up the corresponding statistics for HBCUs, I was met with some headlines from a couple of years ago claiming that, in terms of graduating Black students, HBCUs were doing even worse?! BUT then I looked deeper, and I found an article explaining why those headlines were SUPER MISLEADING – basically they were just straight-out comparing Black student graduation rates at HBCUs and PWIs without taking into account things like socioeconomic status and academic preparedness. And this is a major problem with the study. Because there are major differences here – HBCUs enroll more low-income students and students who have had less academic preparation (read: students who have been failed by their previous educational systems). ⠀⠀

Many students choose to go to HBCUs because they really want to go there because they’re great schools, but other students “choose” to go to HBCUs because other schools don’t want them. Black students are more likely than White students to come from low-income families where they didn’t even have calculus in their schools, let alone private tutors and college prep courses. They’re also more likely to be the first in their family to go to college. These students often need additional help (through no fault of their own), and many schools aren’t willing to give it to them – many schools are not willing to invest extra time, energy, and money on truly giving these students the education they deserve (and which the students are paying for…). ⠀

If schools accept these students but don’t really teach them, the students have a high chance of failing, which would make those schools’ performance statistics (things like retention & graduation rates) look bad. So a lot of schools just don’t accept them – but many HBCUs don’t take this approach – instead, many commit to (truly) teaching everyone. So HBCUs, 26% of which are “open admission” compared to 14% of non-HBCUs, end up taking more disadvantaged students, which puts the school at a disadvantage in the performance statistics game. When researchers took the study data and took these things into account, controlling for factors like socioeconomic background and academic preparedness, they found that Black students were 6-16% more likely to graduate from an HBCU within 6 years than Black students at a PWI ⠀

Another study used modeling to figure out the variables behind the success of students at HBCUs and non-HBCUs. When they put socioeconomic background (they looked at whether students were receiving Pell grants, which are given by federal government to low-income students) and academic preparedness (they looked at SAT scores) into their model, they found that Black students were 14% more likely to graduate if they were at an HBCU as opposed to a non-HBCU ⠀

Those statistics are for students of all majors. I was curious if and how they were different for my favorite field. We know that in general, Blacks are incredibly underrepresented in STEM; as of 2014, 78% of early career doctorate holders in science & engineering (i.e. recent PhD graduates ready to join the ranks of faculty if desired (and not impeded)) were White. Black women made up 2.7% and Black men made up just 0.8%!  ⠀

Part of the “problem” is that even when Black college students *do* graduate, they’re more likely than their White peers to have switched out of a STEM major (40% of Black students compared to 29% of White students).  This STEM retention seems to be less of an issue at HBCUs, leading them to produce a disproportionate share of Black STEM bachelor’s degrees. In 2011, only 11% of Black college students attended an HCBU, but 19% of science & engineering degrees awarded to Black students came from HCBUs. For math & statistics, this number’s even higher, 33%!  HBCUs are also doing a better job preparing STEM graduates for PhD-ing. More than 1/3 of Black STEM doctoral degree-earners between 2005 and 2010 got their undergraduate degree from an HBCU. ⠀

Reasons for this out-performance likely include things like having a more supportive environment, better mentorship, and even just having professors that look like them. In colleges & universities overall, only 0.7-2.9 percent of faculty in biology, chemistry, and economics are Black I don’t know the statistic for faculty in those specific disciplines at HBCUs, but in 2011, 64% of tenured or tenure-track faculty at HBCUs were Black, compared to only 7% overall And representation really does matter. Having someone who looks like you in a career you aspire to matters. And that’s only one of the reasons HBCUs are pulling more than their weight. ⠀

So, when you look at the dire statistics about how Black people are underrepresented in STEM degree obtainment, just think about how much worse those statistics would be without HBCUs. And the possibility of not having HBCUs is becoming frightening more realistic. Clearly, these schools have tremendous value – and PWIs have a lot to learn from them. Yet these institutions are constantly under financial strain. ⠀

And this strain is getting exacerbated by a certain viral strain… coronavirus is hitting many colleges hard. From students dropping out or postponing college because “virtual classrooms” aren’t the “real deal” – to students being unable to afford tuition because they or their family members have lost their job due to shutdowns – colleges are really concerned about enrollment in the coming school year. Basically all colleges are concerned, but the really rich colleges can breathe a little easier because they have huge endowments – basically a lot of money donated by really rich people – to cushion the blow. This isn’t the case for most HBCUs, whose endowments are >70% lower endowments. 

Recently, HBCUs have received some large donations from philanthropists, corporations, and celebs, in part spurred by the racial justice movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and far too many other Black people at the hands of police. MacKenzie Scott, novelist, philanthropist, and ex-wife of Jeff Bezos recently made the news when she gave unrestricted multimillion-dollar donations to various HBCUs, tribal colleges, and other colleges serving underserved communities. 

But, such gifts aside, HBCUs largely depend on enrollment for funding. And if students aren’t enrolling…⠀

To make things worse, enrollment isn’t the only potentially catastrophic coronavirus-caused conundrum hitting HCBUs especially hard. Unlike a lot of PWIs, many HCBUs don’t already have the infrastructure required for switching classes to online. And, since HCBUs are serving more lower-income students (>70% of HBCU students have limited financial resources), they have more situations where students might not even have access to the internet at home. ⠀

And these problems are on top of the chronic problems that many HBCUs have in obtaining the funding needed to sustain themselves. Recently, the US government passed the FUTURE Act which provides more stable annual funding to HBCUs, but it isn’t enough 

It remains to be seen what the Biden administration will do for HBCUs – people are waiting to hear who Biden will pick as executive director for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (a position previously held by Johnathan Holifield). 

One thing is clear – we need to do more to protect HBCUs, which starts with better recognizing their value. ⠀

I watched a really interesting documentary, entitled “Tell Them We Are Rising” on PBS, which tells the history of HBCUs. Apparently many were started by White missionary groups and they largely wanted to “civilize” or “Yankee-ize” the Black people (this was at a time with the very idea of Blacks learning at all was scary to many White people and being able to control how and what they learned was viewed by some as a way to “lessen the threat”). But the Black people weren’t having it – the students went on strikes and held protests and were able to get in place predominantly Black faculty and institute safe environments for Black culture to flourish.⠀

To this day, Black culture flourishes in these HBCUs. And it was really moving to see Black students in the documentary, many of whom had grown up in environments where they were one of the only Black person in their school, express their excitement for being able to be “fully themselves.” This felt really impactful to me in a couple of ways – for one, it stressed to me the value of HBCUs. But it also stressed to me the need for change in our society so that Black people can feel free to be themselves *anywhere* without having to worry about being stereotyped, without having to worry about “code-switching” every time they go to speak, without having to worry about having the cops called on them for “looking suspicious” and then having to worry about those cops literally killing them. ⠀

So, White society NEEDS TO CHANGE. It’s past time for this. We need to make society, including PWIs, more inclusive for Black people. But, at the same time, we need to support existing Black societal institutions. We need to do both at the same time and not let focusing on one allow us to ignore the other.  And we have to realize that these efforts are not counterproductive or oxymoronic. ⠀

But this realization can be challenging… I’ll be honest (you know authenticity’s my thing) – in my youth, I had been uncomfortable with the idea of HBCUs – not because I was afraid of Black people secretly gathering to collude against White people or anything like that. Instead, I was uncomfortable with the idea that Black spaces *needed* to exist at all, that Black people didn’t feel comfortable in PWIs, didn’t want to hang out with us. And I thought that supporting HBCUs meant being racist, like you were supporting segregation? Let me try to unpack this…

I grew up in a progressive, yet almost exclusively White, “sheltered” environment. I was taught not to be prejudiced and to love everyone, but I learned non-racism instead of anti-racism. I was taught to be “color-blind” – that we should view everyone the same regardless of race, sex, ethnicity. The problem with this whole “color-blind” approach is that, even if everyone is born equal, they are raised in an unequal society. The whole color-blind ideal discounts the lived experiences of people as they grow up in a predominantly White society. So being “color-blind” means that we’re basically placing blinders on which allow us to ignore the system ways in which our society discounts the lives of people of color. ⠀

These color-blind blinders allow us to pretend like racial injustices don’t exist, convince ourselves that slavery & discrimination are things of the past (something that’s pretty easy to do if you grow up in an almost all White environment and only see discrimination in textbooks and movies). In addition to preventing us from seeing the bad stuff White society does to Black people, the color-blind blinders prevent us from seeing the good stuff Black society has to offer and the ways in which a rich Black cultural history has contributed to, and continues to contribute to, and benefit, society as a whole. ⠀

But, even if you don’t think that HBCUs should continue to exist because of their cultural value, you should at least be able to see that they should continue to exist because of their academic value. HBCUs are doing great work in graduating students whom other universities either won’t accept or won’t invest the energy needed to truly teach them. We need to change those other universities to make them more like the HBCUs when it comes to this.

Thankfully, some higher-ups are starting to recognize this. For example, in 2020 the National Science Foundation (NSF) started a program called STEM-US (the HBCU STEM Undergraduate Success Research Center) to study what HBCU’s are doing that makes them so successful and how other colleges can do better by modeling those practices. 

But we can’t just change PWIs. We also need to make sure that these HBCUs can continue to exist and keep doing their great work. ⠀

Additionally, we need to change the K-12 educational systems that are leading to their being so many Black students that are under-prepared for college in the first place. We need to invest more in our public school systems at all levels. The whole American set-up where school funding is tied to local property taxes means that children from rich neighborhoods are being set up for success whereas children from poor neighborhoods are being set up for failure. And years and years of redlining, rising wealth gaps, and other factors, have led to Black children being more likely to be in one of those poorer neighborhoods. So clearly there are a lot a lot of societal issues that need addressing. And we must address them. But, at the same time, we cannot allow some of the only institutions that *are* working to go under.

note: Kamala Harris is the first vice president (or even VP nominee) to have attended an HBCU (she went to Howard University) but she isn’t the only HBCU-alum who made political news in 2020 – a couple others you might have heard of are Stacy Abrams (Spelman College) and Raphael Warnock (Morehouse College). 

And there are MANY more – “According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, among African Americans, 40% of members of Congress, 40% of engineers, 50% of lawyers and 80% of judges are HBCU graduates.”  

If you want to learn more about all sorts of things: #365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉 

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