Changing the Narrative About HBCUs’ Value Proposition


Robert T. Palmer

Larry Walker photo

Larry J. Walker


Charles J. Gibbs

During a town hall meeting at a Louisiana high school this past January, a student hailing from Southern University asked President Obama a question about the negative perception some students have regarding the value of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Although President Obama praised HBCUs for developing leaders, he lamented the challenges facing these venerable institutions. In particular, President Obama criticized HBCUs for having low graduation rates and allowing students to accumulate loan debt without attaining a degree. Fortunately, President Obama did contextualize his comments by noting that he understands that HBCUs are known for taking a chance on some students, but he mainly focused his attention on arguing that these institutions need to increase their graduation rates.

President Obama’s comments are problematic for a number of reasons, and some might say that it reflects his administration’s viewpoint toward HBCUs. Nevertheless, his assertions about HBCUs feed into a larger narrative about the relevancy or lack thereof about historically Black colleges. For example, many leading newspapers throughout the country have published articles belittling the value of HBCUs and indicating that they are outdated in a “post-racial” society. In fact, in a separate article co-written by one of the authors of this article (which is currently under review for publication) argues that HBCUs are the most celebrated as well as the most scrutinized institutions of higher education in America. The goal of this post is not to further perpetuate that view but to delineate the significance of these important institutions in the hopes that we can begin to change the dominant narrative about HBCUs.

While scores of research show that HBCUs have played an important role in helping Blacks advance into the middle class and were instrumental in developing leaders who played a critical role in the civil rights movements, evidence has also documented the value proposition of HBCUs. A strong body of scholarly evidence, for example, has shown that HBCUs facilitate the cognitive and psychological growth and development of Black students, particularly compared to predominantly White institutions (PWIs).

Results from a 2015 survey by Gallup-Purdue University illustrates this perfectly by indicating how Black students at HBCUs reported having more meaningful experiences than their non-HBCU counterparts. Not only did these students report having positive and supportive interactions with faculty and mentors, they also felt that their institutions prepared them well for life after college. In discussing the value relevance of HBCUs, it is important to note that historically Black universities are able to orchestrate such a powerful environment for Black students while being chronically underfunded compared to their PWI counterparts. This is a feat that should not only be acknowledged and perhaps celebrated by dignitaries, such as President Obama, but should also motivate policymakers to invest more financial resources into HBCUs.

In addition to providing an environment that helps to maximize students’ talent and wellness, the affordability of HBCUs, particularly public HBCUs, also illustrates their value proposition in today’s competitive higher education marketplace. Indeed, the affordability of HBCUs is one reason White students enroll in HBCUs, especially at the graduate level. Given that approximately 90% of students who attend HBCUs receive financial aid, HBCUs strive to keep their tuition affordable because they care deeply about student access and success.

Students that attend HBCUs are valued regardless of their socioeconomic background, race, or ethnicity. Moreover, HBCUs educate a higher percentage of first generation college students in comparison to PWIs. Without HBCUs, thousands of students would not have access to a quality college education. They encourage students from low- and moderate-income families to seek new challenges, including traveling abroad. Students that require additional academic support flourish because each institution is invested in their future. A student’s value is not based on whether they are a “legacy” but their ability to make a contribution to society.

HBCUs excel at recognizing “diamonds in the rough”—talented students forced to navigate underserved communities with limited resources. Students are more than a number at HBCUs and administrators, faculty, and staff members develop genuine relationships with them that continue after graduation. For this reason, their record of preparing students to compete in the global economy cannot be ignored.

HBCUs’ worth to students cannot always be quantified. For instance, throughout HBCUs’ history, they have encouraged students struggling to acclimate to a college environment to persevere despite academic and personal struggles. It’s important to look beyond HBCUs attrition rates. They enroll a high percentage of first generation, minority, and underserved students with limited financial support. In spite of the obstacles, HBCUs are adept at graduating students in high need areas including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Frequently, HBCUs’ long history of success is clouded by comparisons to larger well-funded PWIs. Policymakers cannot ignore the impact funding disparities have had on HBCUs’ ability to maintain their structural and technological infrastructures. We cannot forget that HBCUs, including land grant institutions, are still waiting for matching funds from states throughout the United States.

In spite of barriers, HBCUs continue to give students an opportunity to connect with peers from around the country that bring new and engaging ideas to campus. In the article “The Honorable Past and Uncertain future of the Nation’s HBCUs,” the authors note that students are drawn to HBCUs because they desire a learning environment in which their identity is appreciated and celebrated. HBCUs’ commitment to fostering an inclusive environment is consistent with democratic principles. This translates to students becoming change agents committed to national and international issues.

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.

Larry J. Walker is a Research Fellow in the School of Graduate Studies at Morgan State University.

Charles J. Gibbs is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, in the School of Education, at Howard University.