If you haven’t been paying much attention to the debate concerning the relevance and effectiveness of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), now is the time to sit up and take notice. If you don’t, there is a chance it could soon be too late. Over the last two decades, we have seen the number of HBCUs in the United States sharply decline and this greatly concerns me. Those who believe in the benefits of HBCUs need to stand up and let their voices be heard, before these important institutions are gone forever.
HBCUs are coming under fire for everything from not improving their failing infrastructures to producing lower graduation rates, and more. But we need to take a moment to look at why people should pull together, rally around them, and help them make it through turbulent economic times. HBCUs have helped to educate some of the most prominent African American figures in this country’s history, including Jesse Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, and Thurgood Marshall, among many others.
HBCUs provide cultural benefits, as well as providing an affordable education. This cultural foundation has been important to the African American community for over a century. Our HBCUs were there, supporting the community and educating our people, long before other colleges would even let them through the door. So are we saying that, just because mainstream American colleges will now let black students in, we should abandon the institutions that supported us and helped us get to where we are today?
HBCUs are a part of African American tradition, going back generations. They were not only there during the struggle; they helped our people get through it! We owe them our support and respect. They were there for us, and it is time, right now, for us to be there for them.
The biggest reason that HBCUs are fading is because they are often lack sufficient funding, which makes it difficult for them to survive. Without adequate funding, they will end up deteriorating and are apt to become a thing of the past. The low completion rate at HBCUs has also been a contributing factor to their demise. But I believe that it is the other way around: the lack of funding has contributed to the lower graduation rates. HBCUs have to deal with the fact that many of their academically eligible students drop out of college each year because their financial needs cannot be met with Pell Grants and other aid. A large portion of HBCUs have small endowments, so there isn’t a huge rainy day fund to tap into when financial challenges arise.
I received my Masters and Doctoral level training from Jackson State University. Recently, Washington Monthly magazine ranked Jackson State University number ong 258 colleges and universities across the country in terms of social mobility, research and service ratings. This attests to the fact that many of our HBCUs are achieving astounding results, against all odds. In my home state of Mississippi, I grew up attending athletic and cultural functions at Tougaloo College, Alcorn State University, Mississippi Valley State University and of course the aforementioned Jackson State University. These universities are sources of great pride and a part of the African American intellectual tradition.
Now is the time when people who support HBUCs, including advocates, organizations, faculty, students and alumni, need to rally together to help save this historical piece of African American history. If these groups come together and make their voices heard, we will be able to save these institutions. But make no mistake, if there is no rally, if there is no coming together to let the powers-that-be know that we want them saved, then I predict that they will be gone in 50 or so years. And they will not return. Nobody is going to turn back the hands of time and open another historically black college or university, because it wouldn’t be historic. Right now, they are historic, and they need our support and rescue!
Many people are currently asking whether HBCUs are worth saving in the first place. I ask, how can these historical institutions, which represent African American culture, tradition and struggle for educational equality, not be considered worth saving? If they are not worth saving, then it makes it very difficult to find any other piece of African American heritage that is worth saving. These educational institutions are symbols of our people that must not be ignored.
I urge those who care about these institutions to speak out, show your support, and demand that adequate funding be provided to them, so that they can make it through these turbulent economic times. It’s not just about saving a college or university. This is a metaphor for saving ourselves! With proper funding, these schools will thrive, carrying on our culture and traditions as they were meant to do.
In the words of the great Eldridge Cleaver, “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.” Which will you be?