As a graduate of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) for my PhD in Higher Education Administration and an active researcher on HBCUs, I am happy to see that there is more empirical research on these institutions. Research on HBCUs focuses on a variety of areas, such as faculty governance, desegregation, college presidents, and their success in disproportionally producing minority STEM graduates. With that said, there is still a need for scholars to be more intentional about conducting research on Black students at HBCUs. Unfortunately, most of the research on students at HBCUs compares the experiences of Black students at these institutions with their counterparts at predominantly White institutions (PWIs). While this research helps to demonstrate the relevance of HBCUs by highlighting the supportive campus climate they foster, researchers must be more intentional about providing a contemporary examination of Black students—both male and female—enrolled in these institutions.
Additional research on Black students at HBCUs must go beyond what the literature has consistently found to be true about these students—they are immersed in a supportive climate that helps to facilitate their psychosocial development and maximize their academic success. I am not suggesting researchers stop discussing what many consider to be a unique feature of HBCUs—their supportive, nurturing, and family oriented climates. I think highlighting these aspects periodically is critical; however, if we do not challenge ourselves to focus on other aspects of student experiences at HBCUs, we are limiting our ability to provide HBCUs with best practices to help them increase student retention and persistence. For example, more attention needs to focus on how HBCUs can promote Black male engagement on campus. Moreover, more research should be devoted to studying the experiences of successful students at HBCUs to see what lessons, if any, could be extended to other students on campus to help increase their success. Furthermore, we have to be more intentional of studying the within group differences among Black students at HBCUs. Not all students experience HBCUs in the same way.
One question that certainly warrants greater exploration about students at HBCUs is the challenges they encounter while working toward degree completion. There is ample evidence that indicates HBCUs disproportionately admit students who are low-income, first-generation, and dependent on financial aid. Students who fall into one or more of these categories may face certain challenges, such as balancing the need to work part-time or full-time while attending classes to support their education or lacking access to cultural capital (e.g., knowledge and skills) to help facilitate their collegiate success. While having some understanding of the characteristics of HBCU students as well as some of the challenges these characteristics may engender is critical, it is equally important to be attentive to other challenges HBCU students may experience. Unfortunately, as with the case for research on students at HBCUs, research that delineates challenges to the success of HBCU students is lacking.
HBCUs can play an important role in helping researchers produce contemporary knowledge on Black students on their campuses. One of the ways they can do this is by allowing researchers, who have an IRB, onto their campuses to conduct interviews, focus groups or engage in other data collecting activities with their students. I understand that HBCUs are concerned with allowing “outsiders” on their campuses to collect data because institutional leaders think that they might use the data to paint a negative picture of these institutions. I think this is a valid concern. I am not suggesting that HBCUs open up their campuses to just anyone under the guise of conducting research on their students. I am suggesting, however, that HBCUs be more proactive in working with researchers. The outcome of this will provide HBCU leaders with better insight about some of the contemporary experiences and challenges of Black students and help HBCUs to implement best practices to improve student outcomes.
Dr. Robert T. Palmer is an associate professor of Student Affairs Administration at the State University of New York at Binghamton and an affiliate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.