Getting Predominantly Black Institutions a Primetime Spot

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Anthony Fowlkes

For African American students looking to pursue postsecondary education, the term HBCU brings out many opinions. Recently, HBCUs have been featured in the media from TV shows like Black-ish, and United Shades of America to their own PBS special, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities. Just last year, these institutions made national news when HBCU presidents met with President Trump in the White House and when the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, gave her first commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University. If that was not impressive enough, Beyoncé turned her 2018 Coachella performances into a tribute to the Black excellence found at HBCUs. The conversation around HBCUs is alive and happening now.

It might come as a shock to some that Black education is not contained in just these 105 institutions. There are 30 other institutions currently designated as Predominately Black Institutions (PBIs). PBIs are approaching their 10-year anniversary since written into law when the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 – a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 – passed. However, Congress first recognized these institutions through the Predominantly Black Institution Act of 2007.

These institutions were designated as PBIs as a result of one of the final provisions of the then Senator, Barack Obama. In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education Obama stated, “Congress has long supported the essential role of similar institutions through provisions supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but newer institutions serving a needier, but deserving student populations can now also be recognized and supported.” The move to designate these institutions was intentional and critical to expanding funding opportunities to institutions that serve Black students.

Now you must be wondering if HBCUs are historical, how does one define a PBI? There are 4 criteria that the federal government uses to define a PBI, they are:

  1. Must serve at least 1,000 undergraduate students
  2. Have a high proportion of Pell-eligible undergraduate students in comparison with other institutions offering similar instruction
  3. Have a low per full-time undergraduate student expenditure in comparison with other institutions offering similar instruction
  4. Must enroll at least 40% African-American students

These criteria are not easy bars to clear. In comparison, when determining eligibility for the 2018 academic year, the U.S. Department of Education found that:

  • 29 of undergraduate serving HBCUs enrolled less than 1,000 undergraduate students
  • 4 HBCUs enrolled few Pell-eligible students compared to similar institutions
  • 16 HBCUs spent more on full-time undergrads than similar institutions
  • 5 HBCUs did not enroll at least 40% of African-American students

If we are holding PBIs to such a high standard, then we need to acknowledge the hard work they are doing. I believe this show of support can come in several forms.

Firstly, higher education scholars should begin researching PBIs. These institutions are currently one of the least studied of all of the Minority Serving Institutions, particularly due to their newness. However, after 10 years there are still no peer-reviewed studies conducted solely on PBIs. There is ample opportunity to not only examine the outcomes PBIs produce but also include these institutions alongside current assessments of HBCUs to give a fuller picture of Black postsecondary education. In addition, over 100 more institutions are on the cusp of becoming PBIs, as of 2017. We, as a higher education community, need to examine the specific needs of these schools in order to assist in overcoming barriers.

Secondly, PBIs are serving as a pipeline for Black students to enter postsecondary education. PBIs are mostly 2-year colleges offering associates degrees in the East, South, and Midwest. If HBCUs partnered with these institutions, then the pipeline could continue for these students. This approach provides more opportunities for students who were unsure of pursuing a 4-year education first, wanted to stay closer to home, or lacked knowledge around HBCUs. Partnerships would not only help students but could also help increase HBCU enrollment – especially due to the proximity of PBIs to HBCUs.

Finally, through media and consumer education, there needs to be a push to highlight these institutions to students and families. These institutions don’t have the legacies of HBCUs to carry them into the Oval Office or to the stage at Coachella. As a community of people interested in the success of Black students, spotlighting PBIs will garner more public support and illuminate the excellent work these institutions are doing to support and uplift Black and first-generation low-income students. Getting research into the hands of media commentators, calling representatives to stress the importance of these institutions, and getting those speaking to high school students to include PBIs as an option is just the first step towards PBIs primetime spot.

Anthony Fowlkes is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Higher Education as well as a master’s degree in Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He is originally from Troy, Michigan and attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, majoring in both Economics and Asian Studies. Anthony worked throughout his undergraduate career in the Office of the Vice President of Student Life conducting research on the institution’s student population. In his first year of graduate school, Anthony worked with University of Michigan’s Office of Enrollment. Anthony’s research interests include federal financial aid system and the effectiveness of institutional policies that assist in the accurate and timely disbursement of those funds. Anthony was also an intern at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. 

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