Experiencing a traumatic event can have a long-term impact on a student’s academic performance. Exposure to trauma contributes to mental health and anxiety disorders including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which prevent students from completing simple tasks such as attending class. Of course, it is vital to ensure that all students struggling with a prior or recent traumatic event have access to counselors, but it is important to remember that African-Americans from underserved backgrounds are more likely than Whites to have exposure to trauma. In addition, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) educate a higher percentage of students from underserved backgrounds in comparison to predominantly White institutions (PWIs). Yet, because of funding disparities between PWIs and HBCUs, declining enrollment, and smaller endowments, HBCUs struggle to provide services to students from disadvantaged communities. HBCUs’ inability to provide therapeutic support services for survivors of trauma may very well impact student attrition rates.
The majority of research on HBCUs and student attrition rates focuses on measures including school readiness, family household income and support, peer relationships and school climate. However, a recent study by Boyraz, Horne, Owens and Armstrong (2013) found that African-American students’ exposure to trauma also negatively impacted their likelihood to return to school. Their findings are significant for HBCUs because these colleges and universities enroll a disproportionate number of African-American students, and those students are more likely to be exposed to trauma. For example, a study examining the relationship between trauma and academic performance for students at a HBCU found that participants were exposed to a variety of crime- and physical-related traumas including robberies and assaults. Investigating the relationship between trauma and academic performance would add to the overall body of research on HBCUs.
Ensuring students from underserved backgrounds have access to comprehensive mental health services could mediate traumas’ impact on academic performance. Unfortunately, African-Americans rarely seek support for trauma because (1) they have a general mistrust of the health care system, (2) there are stigmas associated with mental health, and (3) there is limited access to mental health services within underserved communities. For HBCUs, destigmatizing mental health will require coordinating with local, state, and federal agencies. Working with public health officials could help HBCUs combat micro issues that are unique to the African-American community.
Although HBCUs face unique challenges regarding mental health, many postsecondary institutions throughout the United States are struggling to identify students in need of mental health services. Over the last few months Appalachian State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tulane University had students die from suicide. These unfortunate deaths have forced postsecondary institutions to carefully reexamine the role counseling centers play in the lives of undergraduate and graduate students. Ensuring counseling centers have a robust budget is critical to providing assistance to vulnerable populations. However, in comparison to large PWIs, HBCUs may not have the resources to counsel students from underserved backgrounds.
HBCU administrators will have to adopt a cost effective approach to ensure students have access to therapeutic services. This should include a campus-wide acknowledgment of mental health issues that emphasizes counseling for those who need it and destigmatization to ensure students are comfortable pursuing treatment. Implementing school-wide initiatives can also help schools address specific issues. For instance, Spelman College eliminated their intercollegiate athletics program to develop a comprehensive student wellness program. While not all HBCUs should not consider eliminating their athletic programs, the Spelman initiative highlights the importance of developing a holistic approach to learning that emphasizes health first and foremost.
HBCUs have to support the academic and emotional needs of African-American students. This should include adopting proactive approaches that challenge conventional thinking. For example, Paul Quinn College announced a new school/work model, which will allow students to earn real work experiences and eliminate unnecessary student debt. Paul Quinn’s new initiative could become a model for HBCUs throughout the United States. Similarly, developing a template that includes support for trauma could counter environmental factors that impact student attrition rates.
Throughout their history HBCUs have overcome a variety of economic and political obstacles. Despite the unique challenges they face, African-American students can benefit from attending institutions with a focus on shared responsibility and cultural awareness. However, HBCUs have to adapt to ensure they remain competitive with institutions of similar size. HBCUs should develop policies that meet the unique social and emotional needs of new and returning students. Trauma can have a short and long-term impact on the lives of at risk populations, and without comprehensive support, debilitating mental health problems could prevent students from completing their postsecondary education.
Larry J. Walker is a Research Fellow in the School of Graduate Studies at Morgan State University.