Honoring the Past, Engaging the Present, Touching the Future

Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Honoring the Past, Engaging the Present, Touching the Future

Allen, Walter R

This article examines the history, present, and future of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). We begin with a brief review of the existing literature on HBCUs, considering common themes and how these institutions changed over time within a broader sociohistorical landscape. In addition to historical information, we use a national database to illuminate trends and shifts in the students choosing to attend, and being served by, these institutions. We close by considering new challenges that face these institutions, addressing how HBCUs are positioned to move forward with their important mission of educating the Black community.

“Education is thus simply the means by which a society prepares, in its children, the essential conditions of its own existence.” (Emile Durkheim, 1972, p. 203)

“Education will set this tangle straight.” (W. E. B. Du Bois, 1903/1989, p. 76)

“When you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions.” Carter G. Woodson (1933, p. xiii)

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been at the center of the Black struggle for equality and dignity. The American ethos idealizes education and personal achievement over birthright as the sole basis for one’s place in society-except for African Americans. We have always been judged by the color of our skin, denied equal educational opportunity, and told the educational gap between Blacks and Whites was the reason for our subjugated status in society. It is therefore not surprising that education has been a key site for Black struggle. For African Americans, education embodies not only a means toward gaining equality and progress, but the very essence of citizenship and pereonhood. We have pursued higher education with faith, perseverance and desperation, absolutely convinced that the keys to our deliverance from racial oppression lay hidden in the pages of books we were forbidden to read.

As the opening quotes attest, HBCUs play important roles in the perpetuation of Black culture, the improvement of Black community life, and the preparation of the next generation of the Black leadership. Durkheim’s quote reminds us that above all, education is culturally specific; education is rooted in and reflects the conditions, worldview and purposes of its parent society. In this respect, HBCUs have been profoundly shaped by the circumstances (historical, economic, political, and cultural) that define Black lives and communities in America. Du Bois’s quote highlights the mandate for these institutions to engage the world, improve the circumstances of Black people and challenge the nation to realize its highest ideals. Finally, the quote from Woodson emphasizes the transformative power of education and the responsibility of HBCUs to empower individuals to change lives, their communities, and society. This has been the daunting charge to this unique group of institutions of higher learning; they have been called to preserve a culture, prosper a community, equip a new generation of leaders, and model what is best about America.

The dawning of the 21st century is an appropriate moment to consider the trends, prospects, and challenges of HBCUs. In this article, we reassess the past, present, and future role of HBCUs while advocating the need for a perspective that considers how they function as institutions within a social system characterized by multiple forms of oppression. Specifically, we attempt an analysis of HBCUs that stresses the frequent, systemic interactions among race, gender, and class in the historical and contemporary eras. We close by considering new challenges that face these institutions and addressing how HBCUs are positioned to go forward with their important mission of educating the Black community with the goal to change American society for the better.


The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was one of the most far-reaching in American history. This case was made possible by certain antecedent cases that laid the groundwork for Brown, challenging the educational inequalities that violated the “separate but equal” provisions of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-Legal Defense Fund (NAACP-LDF) win cases such as Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma (1948), Sweatt v. Painter (1950), and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), it became possible to attack the system of segregation through Brown.

The Brown case was actually a compilation of five different court cases challenging the constitutionality of de jure segregation in public schools, charging that separate schools for Black and White children were inherently unequal and unfair. Black families had few options in terms of their children’s education. Black students were forced to attend inferior schools that stunted their learning and self-esteem. Brown declared racial segregation unconstitutional and ordered the integration of public schools across the nation with “all deliberate speed.”

Great optimism greeted the Supreme Court’s monumental decision; however, social changes in race and schooling since Brown have been mixed at best. There continues to be a considerable debate regarding the effectiveness, impact, and even wisdom of the Brown decision (Bell, 2004; Ogletree, 2004). Brown offers a clear rejection of de jure segregation, yet the de facto segregation of neighborhoods, schools, and much of American life remains very much a reality (Brown et al., 2003). The resegregation of public education has concentrated Black and Latino students at low resourced urban schools, leaving them at a stark disadvantage and lending to deep disparities in terms of college preparation, admissions, and choice (Kozol, 2005). Despite these challenges, clearly considerable progress has been made. The Brown decision opened the doors to higher education for many African American students. Likely pushed by both expanded educational opportunity and access to funding through the GI Bill, Black student college enrollment increased from 83,000 to 666,000 students between 1950 and 1975 (Allen & Jewell, 2002). In addition to increases among the college educated, there was a distinct shift post-Brown as to where Black students attended college. Prior to the 1950s, Blacks were almost exclusively educated at HBCUs (Anderson, 1988). However, by 1975, approximately three-quarters of Black college students attended traditionally White institutions (TWIs; Allen, 1992).

While many believed the Brown decision and increased access to White colleges would make HBCUs unnecessary, these institutions remain critical, providing a consistent, important educational pathway for Black students and a touchstone for the Black community. While it is true that many Black students attend TWIs today, HBCUs continue to educate and graduate a disproportionate share of Black college students. HBCUs have always opened their doors to students from all educational, social, and ethnic backgrounds and many continue to have “open” admissions policies, welcoming all who wish to attend college; regardless of previous academic performance (Jewell, 2002). The 100 or so HBCUs represent 3% of American colleges and universities, yet they enroll just under one-fifth of all Black college students (Allen & Jewell, 2002; Nettles & Perna, 1997; Redd, 1998). Furthermore, approximately 30% of all African American bachelor’s degree recipients are educated at HBCUs (Allen & Jewell, 2002; Nettles & Pema, 1997).

Black colleges and universities have been key producers of talented Black scholars who go on to become leaders in their communities. Approximately 15% of master’s degrees, 10% of doctorates, and 15% of first professional degrees are awarded to Black students from HBCUs. In the early 1990s, 52% of African American pharmacy degree recipients, 30% of dentistry degree recipients, and 27% of theology degree recipients were all educated at HBCUs (Redd, 1998). Additionally, HBCUs produce a disproportionate number of Black students who go on to complete professional degrees at other institutions. For example, Xavier University in Louisiana has long been acknowledged and regarded as the nation’s leading institution in the production of Black undergraduates entering medical school. Furthermore, Solorzano (1995) found that HBCUs are the leading educators of Black students who go on to earn doctorates. For example, between 1980 and 1990, 57% of African American males who receive doctorates in science or engineering completed their pre-doctoral training at HBCUs. The majority of Black students who enter doctoral programs are females and Spelman College leads HBCUs in the production of Black women who later complete doctoral programs.

The continued importance and vitality of HBCUs highlights the need to not only understand the current significance of these institutions, but also to address how their relevance and mission have shifted and evolved over time (Gasman, 2005). We begin with a brief review of research on HBCUs, considering major findings and key themes. As a whole, changes and consistencies in the significance of race in American society provide an important context for understanding Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Thus, we consider how these institutions emerged and changed over time within a broader socio-historical landscape.

In addition to historical information, we used a national database to illuminate trends and shifts in the students who choose and attend these institutions. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) data files represent an amazing and unique repository, chronicling the history of U.S. higher education over the past 30 years. Collected by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles, CIRP is part of a nationwide longitudinal study of American higher education (Astin, Oseguera, Sax, & Korn, 2002). An annual survey is administered to 400,000 first-year students at over 700 institutions across the country. The freshman survey assesses high school experiences, background characteristics, career aspirations, and first-year college expectations (Astin et al., 2002). The survey responses of 541,824 African American first-time, full-time freshmen attending 1,112 baccalaureate-granting colleges and universities, who participated in CIRP in the past three decades, were the primary data used in our analyses in this article.


For scholars considering the historical and contemporary place of race in the politics of higher education, HBCUs long have been an important subject of inquiry. From the time of their founding in the late 19th century to the present, the social purpose of postsecondary institutions for Blacks within a racially stratified society has been debated intensely by pundits and scholars alike. Beginning in the early 20th century through the present, the extant literature on HBCUs reveals a concern with four primary and interconnected themes: (a) the developmental role of HBCUs relative to African American communities; (b) their potentially transformative role relative to American society at large, particularly in the area of race or “caste”; (c) their place at the intersection of class and race in educational politics; and (d) most recently, their role and function in a post-Civil Rights context.

Many of the studies attempting to document the work and progress of HBCUs were biographical or autobiographical, focusing on the developmental role these institutions played within Black communities as socializing institutions (Armstrong, 1913; Du Bois, 1903/1989; Ogden, 1905; Washington, 1901). In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois (1903/1989) famously referred to HBCUs as “social settlements” where freedmen not only gained access to higher education as a previously withheld resource, but where they also began the process of assimilating into a civic order defined by Anglo-Protestant culture as free laborers and citizens. However, given the limits imposed by a malleable yet deeply entrenched racialized social order, the extent to which HBCUs should facilitate or modify Blacks’ collective desires for upward mobility remained a point of contention. Therefore, many of the earlier studies contributed to the defense or critique of a particular brand of education (liberal arts or vocational) at HBCUs as well as social practices that defined the context for postsecondary schooling (Jones, 1917; Ogden, 1905). For Blacks, the debate over liberal education (championed by W. E. B. Du Bois) versus vocational education (advocated by Booker T. Washington) signified different ways of being in the world that Jim Crow racism had built: one accommodation, the other defiance.

Scholarship on HBCUs has long recognized how the academic path taken by these institutions has had a direct impact on Black political ideology and larger racial dynamics. Hence, much attention has been devoted to the transformative role played by HBCUs in the larger society, specifically through struggles over curricula and social relations on campuses (Anderson & Franklin, 1978; Edwards, 1970; McPherson, 1975; Wolters, 1975). Informed by critical movements in the disciplines of education, history, and sociology, recent studies have reassessed the transformative role, examining modes of social reproduction and resistance at HBCUs and considering how they both reflected and challenged prevalent racial, gender, and class ideologies (Anderson, 1988; Edgcomb, 1993; Gasman, 2001; Watkins, 2001).

While the salience of racial dynamics in higher education has been a useful framework for analyzing HBCUs, in the 1930s scholars called attention to the importance of economic shifts in American society for HBCUs, thereby underscoring the interaction of class and race (Gallagher, 1938/1966; Hohnes, 1934/1969; Woodson, 1933). Continuing the emphasis on the transformative role of HBCUs relative to Black communities, Woodson’s analysis of curricular and ideological trends in higher education for Blacks pointed to a need to transcend the industrial/classical debate in favor of an educational model that incorporated both strains and was more consistent with thencurrent economic realities. Similarly, Gallagher (1938/1966), while stating that the purpose of HBCUs was twofold, playing an “active role in transforming the caste system” and “addressing the internal problems of the Negro group” (pp. 217-218), noted that it was the responsibility of the HBCU to “transform the institutions of class and race” in American society (p. 225). Bond (1934/1970) argued that changes in the basic economic functions of American society stressed the absolute utility of higher education for Blacks in a changing economy, stating that in contrast to previous eras, “the mission of higher education” for Blacks required “little justification” (p. 866). Beginning with Du Bois and Dill’s (1902) Atlanta University Study The College-Bred Negro, analyses of HBCU graduates have also stressed the relevance of class dynamics to the transformative role. These works highlight the intersection of class and race in educational politics by offering insight into how HBCUs contributed to changing patterns of mobility within the Black community and in the larger society (Blackwell, 1987; Caliver, 1933/1970; Freeman, 1976; Freeman, 2002; Johnson, 1938; Webster, Stockard, & Henson, 1981).

The sociopolitical and ideological changes wrought by the modern Civil Rights Movement required scholars of HBCUs to initiate a reassessment of the role of these institutions within what has been referred to as a post-Civil Rights context (Bennett & Xie, 2003; Brown, 1999; LeMeIIe & LeMelle, 1969; Thompson, 1973; Webster, Stockard, & Henson, 1981). Indeed HBCUs were at the very center of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Liberation struggle; they provided foot soldiers for mass protests, leaders for the Movement, lawyers to argue cases before courts, and a credentialed intelligentsia equipped to take advantage of hard won opportunities (Morris, 1984; Moses, 2001). Recent studies demonstrate a more critical understanding of race, manifested chiefly in an increased awareness of how it interacts with the multiple forms of hierarchy articulated in modern social systems (i.e., class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality; Allen & Jewell, 2002; Brown, 1999, 2001, 2003; Brown & Davis, 2001; Brown & Freeman, 2004; Collins, 1998, 2000; Freeman, 1998; Gasman, 2001, 2004; Jewell, 2002, 2007; Price, 2000; Samuels, 2004; Sims, 1994; Willie, Reddick, & Brown, 2006). This move clearly has had implications for studies of the transformative role of HBCUs relative to Black communities and to American society.

The Origins of the Black College (1865-1950s)

As America emerged from the Civil War, a crisis was brewing. The 13th Amendment and Northern victory freed all enslaved African Americans. Prior to Emancipation, every slaveholding state had some form of legislation that forbade Blacks from learning to read or write (Jewell, 2002). However, as freedmen, illiterate African Americans were considered a liability to the country, and it was widely realized that they must be educated (Anderson, 1988). African Americans previously denied the opportunity to learn craved the opportunity to be educated, and eagerly sought the opportunity to attend school (Du Bois, 1903/1989; Washington, 1901). In many ways, African Americans viewed education as the ultimate emancipator, enabling them to distance themselves from slavery, move past their subordinate status in society, and achieve social mobility. Despite opposition from Southern conservatives who viewed educational access for freed slaves as a threat to White supremacy, African Americans and their allies began establishing schools. In the 25 years after the Civil War, approximately 100 institutions of higher learning were created to educate freed African Americans, primarily in the southern United States (Jewell, 2007).

In many cases, African Americans staffed their own schools and used literate and semiliterate members of the community to educate the newly freed slaves. The majority of the institutions established by Blacks themselves were funded by churches, specifically American Missionary Association, Disciples of Christ, and African Methodist Episcopal Church (Jewell, 2007; Redd, 1998). Unfortunately, early HBCUs received little to no state or federal support and often suffered from a shortage of financial resources and adequately trained staff. Consequently, many Black colleges and universities had to rely on White philanthropic organizations and missionary societies to function and continue to serve the Black community (Anderson, 1988; Ballard, 1973; Jewell, 2002).

While funding from White missionaries and northern philanthropists allowed Black colleges and universities to keep their doors open, these benefactors also had a great deal of control over the curriculum and educational goals associated with attending an HBCU. As HBCUs emerged in the late 1800s, their curricula were focused on basic skill development, including instruction on social skills (i.e., etiquette and dress), manual trades, and religious education (Redd, 1998). However, as more institutions were established, curricula became more diversified and were largely viewed as falling into one of two categories: those that offered vocational/industrial training and those focused on the liberal arts.

Whites overall tended to be more supportive of a vocational rather than a liberal arts curriculum, believing that, in addition to being too challenging for Black students, a liberal arts education would lead to dissatisfaction with the lower positions in society African Americans were forced to occupy (Allen & Jewell, 2002; Anderson, 1988; Ballard, 1973; Du Bois, 1903/1989). For example, a classical curriculum would include the works of Rousseau and study of the French Revolution, which was perceived as having the potential to lead Blacks to question their own oppression and create discontent (Anderson, 1988; Ballard, 1973). Black students at many vocational and normal schools engaged in a curriculum of moral instruction, elementary academics, manual labor, and social discipline that was not only supposed to teach their role in society, but also enable them to educate Black youth about their appropriate societal roles. Institutions such as Hampton and Tuskegee universities have been described as focusing in their early years on instructing teachers how to bring up a new generation of inexpensive and subordinate workers, rather than in teaching skilled trades that garnered more economic prosperity like shoemaking, carpentry, and architecture (Ballard, 1973).

The vocational/industrial model was largely personified through the work and vision of Booker T. Washington, a Hampton graduate who established his own institution in Tuskegee, Alabama, based on the Hampton model. In Washington’s view, education should be an agent to increase the morality of Black students, mitigate conflict between the races, and foster White middle-class values. He believed that an education allowing African Americans to develop practical skills would contribute to their economic advancement and self-reliance (Washington, 1901; Wolters, 1975).

Despite these concerns, some HBCUs, particularly those privately funded by African American organizations or missionary societies, maintained a classical, liberal arts curriculum (Allen & Jewell, 2002; Anderson, 1988). W. E. B. Du Bois is often associated with the call for access to the liberal arts versus the restriction of Black students to vocational education, citing the need to train the next generation of African American leaders with a classical education comparable to White institutions of the day (Allen & Jewell, 2002; Du Bois, 1903/1989; Wolters, 1975). At some institutions, endorsement of a liberal arts curriculum meant training in Greek, Latin, literature, and mathematics (Anderson, 1988; Heintze, 1985). At others, however, “liberal arts” meant an exclusive focus on the contributions of Europe and the West, while those from the non-White world were viewed as uncivilized and immoral (Allen & Jewell, 2002).

While there is little data about students’ characteristics, backgrounds, and perspectives during this time period, historical accounts reveal the number of students attending HBCUs grew significantly throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Allen & Jewell, 2002; Anderson, 1988; Jewell, 2002). Enrollments at HBCUs grew consistently between their inception and the 1930s. This growth resulted from expansion among public land grant HBCUs funded under the Second Morrill Act of 1890, and from expansion among private HBCUs supported by churches and foundations. Anderson (1988) documents enrollment trends between 1900 and 1935, revealing the dramatic increases in Black student enrollment over this time period. In 1900, 3,880 Black college and professional students were enrolled in southern institutions, including the District of Columbia. By 1935, the number of Black college and professional students in the South had grown to over 29,000.

Historical accounts also reveal that students being educated at HBCUs, due to the open admissions policy, were quite diverse, particularly in terms of academic ability and socioeconomic class (Allen & Jewell, 2002; Jewell, 2002). As former slaves themselves or the children of slaves, early HBCU students were largely Black, poor, and illiterate. However, a small number of students who had obtained some level of class privilege were also enrolled at HBCUs, creating diverse socioeconomic environments at most institutions (Jewell, 2002). While there were certainly students (some affluent) enrolled at these institutions who benefited from college coursework, the often under-resourced, second-class education offered to Black students left many unprepared for postsecondary work. Thus, most HBCUs did not only function as colleges; they also enrolled students seeking a secondary and college preparatory education, meeting the broad educational needs of Black students denied equal access to quality public schooling. According to Anderson (1988), some institutions did not even offer college courses; only 58 out of 99 HBCUs in 1900 had a college-level curriculum for their students, and over 90% of the enrollment at HBCUs was pre-college students. While these institutions continued to emphasize a secondary education over a college preparatory curriculum, the number of students needing to enroll in such coursework declined through the early 1900s, and in 1930, 40% of students were enrolled in precollege courses at HBCUs.

In addition to being diverse in terms of educational background and social class, early HBCU campuses were surprisingly ethnically diverse as well. HBCUs were the first southern institutions to open their doors to everyone; they did not discriminate and accepted students from any gender, race, creed, or color (Redd, 1998). Therefore, along with the Black students that largely dominated HBCU campuses, these institutions often educated the children of the White missionaries who helped establish these institutions, Native Americans, poor Whites, and international students from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. White female and Jewish students also enrolled in the professional programs offered by some HBCUs (Jewell, 2002).

Importantly, HBCUs were also among the first institutions to offer women access to college. This is not to say that the experience of men and women at HBCUs was the same or equal; women were forced to fight for access to courses and resources thought only to be appropriate for men. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that Black women were often able to attend college in more significant numbers than their White female peers because of the open access mission of HBCUs (Jewell, 2002). While in 1900, Black men vastly outnumbered Black women in terms of college and professional school enrollments at southern colleges, we can see the beginnings of current trends among Black women in college representation by the 1930s. In 1900, 3,115 Black men and 761 Black women were receiving a college or professional education in the South. However, by 1935 just over 12,000 Black men and over 16,000 Black women were enrolled in college and professional programs throughout the South (Anderson, 1988).

Early HBCUs were dynamic institutions that met many needs, serving as “ebony towers” within the Black community (Heintze, 1985). African Americans’ drive for group advancement and need to represent their interests within the White power structure made Black colleges and universities critical institutions, especially in the production of community leaders (Alien & Jewell, 2002). The education offered by HBCUs also created a foundation for an educated middle class of lawyers, doctors, teachers, and leaders to serve the Black community (Anderson, 1988; Ballard, 1973). Due to segregation, the training of these professionals was the nearly exclusive role of HBCUs.

HBCUs also produced a large cadre of Black teachers to educate the rest of the community. In many cases, White teachers refused to instruct Black students as the universal, public education system was being established; therefore, Black teachers had to be trained (and trained quickly) to meet the needs of a community demanding education (Anderson, 1988). Based on this need, a large percentage of HBCU students aspired and trained to be teachers, and the majority of Black students were enrolled at normal schools and teachers colleges (Anderson, 1988). These institutions are credited for raising the literacy rate among newly freed slaves, approximately 95% of whom could not read (Ballard, 1973). HBCUs themselves also provided opportunities for African Americans to serve as teachers, administrators, and campus leaders-opportunities that could not be found at White colleges and universities (Allen & Jewell, 2002; Roebuck & Murty, 1993).

HBCUs and Desegregation (1950s-1980s)

While there were significant gains for African Americans after the Civil War, there continued to be significant gaps between the educational attainment for Whites and non-Whites. In 1950, 6.6% of Whites versus 2.2% of non-Whites had four or more years of college experience (Doddy, 1963). Historically Black colleges and universities were viable options for African Americans seeking a postsecondary education. Prior to 1954, over 90% of Black students were educated at HBCUs (Roebuck & Murty, 1993). Plessy v. Ferguson established a doctrine of “separate but equal,” approving, and in many cases requiring, racial segregation which excluded Blacks from the public spaces generally and public higher education specifically (Allen & Jewell, 2002).

The wind would soon blow in a different direction. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional, ordering the integration of the American public education system through their ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas (Roebuck & Murty, 1993). This change expanded the number of institutions Black students had access to and increased the number of students attending college. For example, between 1950 and 1960, the number of non-Whites (including Blacks) with at least one year of college grew from 414,000 to 779,000 (Howard University, 1976).

Despite the massive ideological shift post-Brown toward Blacks as pseudo-worthy beneficiaries of quality education, resistance and defiance by southern Whites would thwart its positive effects until the 1960s, dubbed the “golden years” of Black progress (Hatch & Mommsen, 1984). Overall, Black enrollments had increased 110% between 1964 and 1969. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 further pushed desegregation, carrying through the federal commitment to desegregate public education. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act required that all colleges receiving public funds or operated by the state to desegregate, while Title VI made it illegal for institutions receiving federal aid to discriminate against students on the basis of race, color, or national origin. This legal precedent fueled the second “Great Migration,” representing the migration in enrollments from HBCUs to traditionally White institutions (Alien, Epps, & Haniff, 1991).

As more predominately White institutions (PWIs) opened then· doors to Black students throughout the late 1960s and 1970s (many of them offering financial assistance), the number of Black students overall, and high-achieving students in particular, enrolling at HBCUs began to decline (Webster, Stockard, & Henson, 1981). The departure of high-ability Black students coupled with the “open door” policy of HBCUs resulted in demonstrative gaps in academic achievement between Blacks at HBCUs and their counterparts at PWIs. Data reveal that by 1971, 3% of Black students entering PWIs had an A or A+ grade point average (GPA), compared to 1.4% of Black students entering HBCUs (Alien, Jayakumar, Griffin, Korn, & Hurtado, 2005). In addition, higher percentages of HBCU students received special tutoring or remediation during high school; 16.4% of Black freshmen at HBCUs versus 11.6% of Black freshmen at PWIs. While educating Black students regardless of academic preparation was a central part of the mission of HBCUs, the considerable enrollment of Black students with academic challenges changed the landscape of HBCUs for the upcoming decade, leading to increased reallocation of resources to remediation rather than college-level instruction (Alien & Jewell, 2002).

The Civil Rights era was also a time when federal policy confronted the neglect of HBCUs. During the mid-1960s, the federal government recognized that eight decades of under-funding had resulted in the serious underdevelopment of Black institutions and confirmed a lack of commitment to the education of Blacks in America (Wolanin, 1998). The funds provided by the Higher Education Act of 1965 and other government policies helped HBCUs to narrow the gap between themselves and traditionally White institutions by providing broad-based financial aid to their students and funds to improve quality of teaching and administrative staff as well as to build infrastructure (Howard University, 1976). Court-ordered settlements, which ordered states with racially dual higher education systems to upgrade HBCUs, also helped narrow thé gap between historically Black and traditionally White public universities (Morris, Allen, Maurrasse, & Gilbert, 1995).

While enabling some improvements to Black college campuses, the distribution of financial aid during this era still favored the more affluent TWIs. For example, one-half of Black students at predominately White institutions had scholarships or grants, compared to only one-third of Blacks at HBCUs (Gurin & Epps, 1975). Based on the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) data, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more concentrated at HBCUs than at PWIs. In 1971, 43% of Black freshmen at HBCUs and 39% of Black freshmen at PWIs reported annual family incomes less then $6,000 (Alien et al., 2005). Diminished financial aid had wide-ranging effects and often presented challenges for students at HBCUs, including affecting the ability of Black students to pursue graduate education. Previous research reveals that higher proportions of Black students than White students desired graduate school degrees. Of the Black freshmen attending HBCUs in 1968, 42.2% planned to get a master’s degree and 18.2% planned to earn doctoral degrees. In comparison, 38.8% of White students aspired to master’s degrees and 12.0% sought Ph.D.s or Ed.D.s (Bayer, 1973). Unfortunately, these plans would not be fully realized in the years to come; nearly half of Black seniors graduating from HBCUs cited finances as a major reason for not attending graduate school (Gurin & Epps, 1975).

Despite the inequalities faced by Black students attending HBCUs, these institutions remained crucial in the development of leaders. Black colleges and universities served as “catalysts and agents for social change” (Alien & Jewell, 2002, p. 249), and students at Black colleges made important contributions during the Civil Rights movement as founders and staffers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), moving toward attaining human rights and removing the stigmas attached to race (Moses, 2001; Williams & Ashley, 2004). Graduates from these institutions went on to become major civil rights leaders and holders of a large portion of the nation’s advanced degrees, including Thurgood Marshall, Charles Drew, Marian Wright Edelman, Nikki Giovanni, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These accomplishments are due, in part, to the incoming aspirations and abilities of Black students attracted to HBCUs in the 1970s. In 1979, 29.9% of entering Black students in HBCUs participated in organized demonstrations as high school seniors, 66.2% of students had future goals to promote racial understanding-a trend that declined significantly, beginning in the late 1990s.

HBCUs continued to serve as an academic home for students from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds throughout this time period, and the moniker “historically Black” used to designate the institutions responsible for educating hundreds of thousands of Black students became especially important during the 1980s as non-Black enrollments at HBCUs expanded. Between 1980 and 1990, White enrollments at HBCUs increased by 41%, and enrollments of Asian/Pacific Islanders increased by 31% (Huffman, Snyder, & Sonnenberg, 1996). Black student enrollments at HBCUs grew only 9% by comparison. Several HBCUs became White majority institutions hi this span (e.g., Bluefield State University, West Virginia State University). While total enrollments for Black students overall attending HBCUs stabilized by the 1980s, enrollments for women soared. In 1976, 117,944 women were enrolled at Black colleges and universities and by 1989, this number increased to more than 140,000. By comparison, and unlike the early 20th century trends, total enrollments for men at HBCUs decreased from 104,669 in 1976 to 102,484 in 1989 (Provasnik & Shafer, 2004). Based on data collected by HERI, Black women were entering HBCUs with academic credentials superior to their male peers (Alien et al., 2005). In 1971, 2.4% of Black males and 8.2% of Black females entered HBCUs with high school GPAs of A- or above. By 1985, the percentage of HBCU freshmen males with A averages increased to 6.8%; the proportion of Black women entering college with A averages increased as well to 9.9%. Black women enrolling at HBCUs were also spending more time participating hi extracurricular and social activities. For example, in 1988, 35.9% of Black males at HBCUs spent O hours during their last year of high school engaged in student groups or clubs, compared to only 23.9% of Black women. Moreover, 2.8% of Black women enrolling at HBCUs reported more than 20 hours of group/club activities as compared to 1.9% of Black male freshmen.

Although HBCUs have historically been at the “forefront of hi managing and accommodating difference” (Alien & Jewell, 2002, p. 255), discrimination according to gender, nationality, sexuality, religion, and race/ethnicity has been-and continues to be-an unfortunate occurrence for some students at these institutions (Alien, 1988; Jewell, 2002). For example, despite the influx of talented, involved Black women into HBCUs, their academic and extracurricular involvement in college was not on par with the engagement of Black men on these campuses. Alien (1986) and Fleming (1984) both found that high educational attainment demonstrated by women in high school fizzled to academic and social disengagement, while men largely dominated the classroom and campus activities on Black college campuses. These contradictory experiences, Alien (1986) argued, translated into higher educational and career aspirations for men attending HBCUs than women. In addition, an increased conservatism was observed among African American freshmen entering historically Black colleges in the 1980s (Alien et al., 2005). This increased conservatism was reflected hi students’ opinions of non-Blacks, women, and sexual and religious minoritieseach representing groups whose enrollment hi HBCUs increased. Anti-homosexual sentiments peaked hi the mid-1980s, with approximately 59% of Black freshmen at HBCUs believing in the importance of laws prohibiting homosexual relationships. Furthermore, the percentage of students believing that the death penalty should be abolished decreased between 1971 at 69.2% to a decade low of 36.2% in 1988 (Alien et al., 2005).

Current Status of HBCUs (1990s-2004)

Despite of the slow growth in previous decades, Black student enrollments at HBCUs increased significantly during the 1990s. Between 1984 and 1994, enrollments increased by 27.4% (Redd, 1998). This swell in enrollments was led by such institutions as Morehouse, Spelman, Howard, Xavier, Hampton, Florida A&M, and others who competed successfully with PWIs for the best students that the Black community had to offer (Alien & Jewell, 2002). This was partly due to the perception among many Black students that HBCUs provide supportive academic and interpersonal environments unmatched by predominately White institutions (Tobolowsky, Outcalt, & McDonough, 2005). Hugely popular television series and movies set at HBCUs, such as A Different World (1987-1993), School Daze (1988), and Drumline (2002), were also key factors driving these increases.

Federal investment in Black colleges during the 1980s and 1990s was also partly responsible for the rise in enrollments. The 1986 enactment of Title III of the Higher Education Act authorized $170 million dollars between 1987 and 1993 to strengthen infrastructure, academic, and financial resources for HBCUs (Redd, 1998). The Clinton administration further increased the federal investment in Title III to $215 million dollars between 1992 and 1995, enabling expansion of research and infrastructure at Black colleges (Wolanin, 1998).

Despite these significant increases in federal funding, many Black colleges faced a time of extreme financial crisis as they entered the 1990s, and these financial circumstances have called into question the quality of education at Black colleges for the upcoming decades (Redd, 1998). Between 1993 and 1994, HBCUs general per student expenditures averaged 88% ofthat spent by predominately White institutions (Hoffman, Snyder, & Sonnenberg, 1996). Public HBCUs spent more money on institutional support, operations, and maintenance than other public institutions, substantiating the claim that HBCU facilities were poorer than those other American institutions (Hoffman, Snyder, & Sonnenberg, 1996). Although financial support via federal investment in HBCUs had increased over time, several private institutions, including Morris Brown College, Mary Holmes, Grambling State University, Bennett College, and Talladega College, were denied accreditation or sanctioned for not securing adequate facilities and/or financial resources (Reaves, 2006). Specifically, between 1996 and 2002, 47% of the private Black colleges belonging to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools received sanctions (Jones, 2005).

In addition to these financial challenges, Black colleges strove to overcome several other hurdles throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. Among them are “pressures to increase minority enrollment, strengthen and maintain institutional quality, and clarify the unique function of the HBCU” (Hall & Closson, 2005, p. 28). The achievement gap between African American men and women has been particularly salient at HBCUs, and Alien and colleagues (2005) acknowledged a “widening of the gender gap in achievement, aspirations, attitudes, and behaviors” (p. 6) among Black freshmen between 1971 and 2004. As mentioned earlier, the average difference in the proportion between male and female Black freshmen in the 1980s reporting A averages in high school was 3.4 percentage points. This difference expanded over time and peaked in 1998, with 17.8% of Black women entering HBCUs, compared to 5.7% of Black male HBCU freshmen, reporting A averages in high school.

The desegregation policies of the 1990s also greatly challenged (and continue to challenge) the ability of HBCUs to uphold their historical missions (Tobolowsky, Outcalt, & McDonough, 2005). In the United States v. Fordice (1992), the courts upheld the decision in Brown that racial segregation in education was illegal, demanding that the state of Mississippi desegregate its higher education system. On the surface, the federal government appeared to be striving to uphold laws against segregation; however, many Black thinkers saw this move as indicative of a larger issue of “whether the continued existence of publicly supported Black colleges is justifiable after nearly forty years of jurisprudence specifically oriented to the elimination of one-race educational institutions” (Jones, 1993, p. 486; Sum, Light, & King, 2004). The Fordice case and other court cases (e.g., Knight v. Alabama, 1991) called into question the need for and purpose of HBCUs, requiring the closing or merging of some of these institutions that were key to serving Black students in the surrounding communities (Minor, 2007; Morris et al., 1995).

Some also suggest that the rising enrollments of Whites at predominately Black institutions have influenced the nature of these institutions (Brown, 2002). Whites are now the majority student group enrolled on some HBCU campuses (e.g., Bluefield State University, West Virginia State University). In 2001, Whites comprised 11.1% of total undergraduate, 20.9% of graduate, and 11.6% of professional students enrolled in HBCUs (Provasnik & Shafer, 2004). Considering the origins of early Black colleges as centers of White middle-class domination alongside these trends, one sees the threat of HBCUs being transformed into environments where Blacks are treated as second-class citizens. Thus far, this has not been the case, and the faculty and administrators guiding HBCUs have remained committed to fostering the development of African American students. As noted above, the number of Black students choosing to attend HBCUs has continued to increase, and these institutions still offer unique environments that facilitate the access and success of Black students.

In many ways, HBCUs are more successful in their efforts to retain and foster success among African American students than PWIs, especially given fewer resources and weaker academic records of entering students (Kim & Conrad, 2006). Research indicates that upon graduation, students at HBCUs have significantly higher self-ratings, retention rates, and academic aspirations than their counterparts at PWIs (Allen, 1992), which likely speaks to differences in academic experiences and campus climates. For example, PWIs have been shown to be more hostile and less supportive, offering fewer opportunities for engagement in social and extracurricular activities, and fewer close, positive interactions with professors (Allen, 1992; Fleming, 1984).

Historically Black colleges and universities have continued to provide quality education for nontraditional students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 73% of all undergraduate students are considered nontraditional (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Since their inception, Black colleges have been known to attract students who are low-income, first-generation, single parents or from underrepresented minority groups, and these institutions continue to fulfill this mission. HERI data indicate that 12.9% of fathers and 7.7% of mothers of Black freshmen had not earned a high school diploma. Thirty-four percent of Black freshmen at HBCUs in 2004 were considered low-income (Allen et al., 2005). HBCUs also continue to attract populations mostly represented at community colleges, namely part-time and transfer students. More then 10% of entering Black students in 2003 had taken courses for credit at another postsecondary institution since high school. In addition, enrollments of part-time students at degree-granting HBCUs increased 59% between 1976 and 2001 (Provasnik & Shafer, 2004). These figures show promise that HBCUs will be responsible for educating a group of students who will brave a system riddled with inaccessibility and unequal opportunity.

Allen and colleagues (2005) acknowledged a “widening of the gender gap in achievement, aspirations, attitudes, and behaviors” (p. 6) overall for Black freshmen between 1971 and 2004, and gender gaps were never more evident than at historically Black institutions in the 1990s. The average difference in the proportion of male and female Black freshmen in the 1980s reporting A averages in high school was 3.4 percentage points. This difference expanded over time and peaked in 1998, with 17.8% of Black women attending HBCUs, compared to 5.7% of Black males, reporting A averages in high school (Allen et al., 2005).


Considered in total, HBCUs have and will continue to fill their unique social contract in national history (Brown & Davis, 2001). These institutions provide social capital and/or social networks, which serve as pathways to success for their students and graduates. HBCUs also continue to act as social equalizers for groups who have been denied equal opportunity in education and in the society at large. Regardless of the perils of HBCUs as educators of the Black youth and centers of social and political struggle, their local and societal values are immeasurable. Among the many gains that HBCUs are offering to Black students are intellectually challenging and stimulating environments, greater peer interaction for Black students, and more faculty-student contact compared to Black students at PWIs (Seifert, Drummond, & Pascarella, 2006). HBCUs not only benefit Black students, but also their surrounding communities, as evidenced by their overall employment impact of 180,142 total full- and part-time jobs in 2001 (Seifert, Drummond, & Pascarella, 2006). Among many challenges ahead for HBCUs are securing adequate funding and continuing to fulfill historical missions, while increasing access for underserved Black and minority students. With assistance from the government (federal, state, and local), private corporations and the communities they serve-coupled with strong institutional leadership, faculty quality and improved infrastructure-HBCUs will be able to meet these challenges.

Are Historically Black Colleges and Universities Obsolete?

This question has been raised or implied over the entire history of these institutions. The circumstances and motivations have varied but the question persists. In a supposed new world with no color line-where African Americans control major corporations, lead Ivy League universities, and own major media conglomerates; where there are Black governors, brain surgeons, Congressional committee chairs, mayors, ambassadors, police chiefs, and media icons like Oprah-many are prompted to ask whether HBCUs have outlived their value. We now have an African American, Senator Barack Obama, who is a serious candidate for the most powerful position in the nation and the world-President of the United States. Given such significant progress, the question is not unexpected. A nuanced answer would trace the archaeology of these significant accomplishments to their origins with the progeny and heritage of HBCUs. A little digging reveals many great African Americans were raised by parents, taught by teachers, supported by mentors, enabled by legislation, and inspired by examples that flowed from HBCUs.

A more straightforward answer to the question, which implies that at long last African Americans have gained full, unfettered participation in American society, is provided by the devastation and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This disaster in New Orleans laid bare the persistent racial divide in America. Blacks suffered disproportionately because of a history and present which left us more vulnerable-and less valued man Whites (DeParle, 2005). Or we could point to the most recent instance of media racism and sexism unfolding in the despicable attack by Don Imus on the integrity of the remarkable Black women on the Rutgers University women’s basketball team (Poniewozik, 2007). Related is the “Jena 6” case in Louisiana, which illustrated racial injustice in legal charges against Black and White youth involved in schoolyard conflicts (Jones, 2007). We could also point to the overrepresentation of African American men in the nation’s jails-more are in prison than attend colleges. In 2000, the “education v. incarceration” gap grew to over 180,000; there were almost 800,000 African American males incarcerated in our country’s state and federal prisons and just over 600,000 walking college and university campuses (Schiraldi & Ziendenberg, 2002). Or we could remind you that Black children and their families continue to be disproportionately mired in poverty (Brown et al., 2003).

Even more specifically and directly relevant are recent attacks on affirmative action in higher education in California and Michigan. California has seen the devastating reversal of Black enrollment at public universities to Brown or pre-Brown levels due to anti-affirmative action legislation (California Proposition 209, 1996), while Michigan voters recently passed a similar statewide proposition to undercut the victory in the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed consideration of race in admissions decisions (Michigan Proposition 2, 2006). These assaults on Black progress in mainstream higher education reveal the entrenched ambivalence of national commitment and the tenuousness of gains. Meanwhile, HBCUs continue to contribute magnificently and disproportionately to the enrollment and graduation of Black college students. Without these institutions, the hopes, dreams and pathways of the African American community to be a better future would be lost.

Historically Black colleges and universities are a uniquely American creation. These institutions are best understood in the context formed by the racial-ethnic milieu revealed in the United States’ past and present. The United States is alone in the world’s history, representing the only democracy founded on racial slavery. Students of the U.S. Constitution, our founding document, celebrate the soaring Enlightenment Age language which privileged individual rights and freedoms, granting the common man previously denied human dignity. However, in the ultimate contradiction, this landmark document also, at one and the same time, ensconced protections for legalized traffic in human beings. Defined as three-fifths human, people of African descent were stripped of all legal, constitutional, and human rights and condemned to generations of unremitting humiliation and brutality as chattel slaves. The U.S. Constitution also stripped away or strictly limited the rights of other groups. Various laws or provisions denied women and non-propertied White males the vote; stole the land of Native Americans, and Japanese Americans; and denied native-born Mexican Americans citizenship rights. So it was this remarkable document, the U.S. Constitution and the magnificent national experiment it created, the United States of America, would come to embody and be haunted by contradictions inherent in the conflicting ideals of the enlightenment and of White racial superiority.

Historically Black colleges and universities exist at the intersection where the “American Dream” of unbridled possibilities meets the “American Nightmare” of persistent racial-ethnic subordination. In a society that claimed to grant all the rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which promised that big dreams could be achieved by simple people through ability, vision, and hard work, it stands to reason education would become a critical vehicle for social mobility. Moreover, at its founding, this nation self-consciously declared its break with the past order of superstition and inherent, birthright privilege to embrace a new world founded on human reason and earned status. Not surprisingly, this new nation experienced a literal explosion of educational institutions-from elementary to secondary schools, from colleges to universities. Churches, state and federal government, private foundations, and independent organizations linked national progress and the realization of the American Dream to expansion of opportunities for education at all levels. Over the country’s history, the proliferation of colleges and universities reflects in simplest terms our national belief in the transformative power of education, especially higher education. We have committed to the ideal that education would set us free, overcoming barriers of prejudice, discrimination, and inequality.

Racial attitudes and patterns shaped the evolution of U.S. higher education. The greatest expansion in opportunities for higher education consistently privileged Whites, particularly White males, since they were the dominant group in terms of power, prestige, and privilege. At various historical points, colleges or universities were founded to serve excluded populations, specifically Blacks, Native Americans, and women. Interestingly, over time colleges and universities were also founded to bring higher education within the reach of poor Whites, Whites in rural areas, and Whites who were ethnically or nationally identified. Nevertheless, from the earliest days of the Republic to the present, Whites have been the major benefactors of a national higher educational system, which has come to be the envy of the world.

Colleges and universities with significant enrollments of students from racial-ethnic minority backgrounds have not received sufficient attention from scholars and policymakers. As a result, our knowledge about the purposes, organization, outcomes, and future of HBCUs continues to be somewhat limited. The changing face of American society has implications for participation in higher education generally, but this is especially so for higher education institutions serving more students from racial-ethnic minority backgrounds. What we do know is that HBCUs have played critical roles in the expansion of access to higher education for Blacks and other underrepresented racial ethnic minorities. HBCUs serve students who are mostly first-generation college-goers, who are economically poor, who have weaker academic backgrounds, and who have suffered racial discrimination. At the same time, we see the definition and reality of HBCUs morphing, driven by changes in American demographic, economic, political and social patterns. The diversity of HBCUS defies simple categorization; included are small, private liberal arts colleges and large, public universities who serve first-generation, immigrant students as well as students from five generations of college-educated families. HBCUs also challenge us to see beyond empty rhetoric that applauds individual, institutional and social diversity even as powerful economic, social, historical, and cultural forces continue to limit Black horizons.

Communities, scholars, policymakers, and practitioners interested in expanding college access and success for underrepresented racial-ethnic minorities would be wise to seek answers in the lessons and examples provided by HBCUs over their long, distinguished histories. It has been said the truest measure of any society is seen in how it treats those on the periphery, who live in the shadows, and who are disadvantaged. Similarly the students served, and under what circumstances, reveal much about the true nature of higher education in America. Rhetoric aside, will this society commit to fundamental changes that will make the American Dream more reality than illusion? Or will the society continue to embrace attitudes and practices that deny real opportunity to all but a select few? How our nation answers these questions is a prelude to the future that awaits. If we are wise, that future will emphasize investment in education and the expansion of human capacity, knowing the returns will be magnified many times over.

Funding for this project was provided by the Lumina Foundation. The UCLA Higher Education Research Institute provided national data for some analyses. The authors thank Ophelia Danofor her editing and helpful comments.


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Walter R. Allen University of California, Los Angeles

Joseph O. Jewell Texas A&M University

Kimberly A. Griffin University of California, Los Angeles

De’Sha S. Wolf University of California, Los Angeles


WALTER R. ALLEN is Allan Murray Cartter Professor in Higher Education, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

JOSEPH O. JEWELL is Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University, where he currently serves as the Interim Director of the Race & Ethnic Studies Institute.

KIMBERLY A. GRIFFIN is a fourth-year doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles in the Higher Education and Organizational Change Program of Education and Information Studies.

DE’SHA S. WOLF is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Higher Education and Organizational Change Program of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

WALTER R. ALLEN is an Allan Murray Cartter Professor in Higher Education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also a Professor of Sociology and co-director of CHOICES, a longitudinal study of college attendance among African Americans and Latinos in California. Dr. Allen received his PhD. from the University of Chicago. His research interests include higher education, race and ethnicity, family patterns, and social inequality. Allen’s more than 100 publications include Higher Education in a Global Society: Achieving Diversity, Equity and Excellence (2006), Enacting Diverse Learning Environments: Improving the Climate for Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Higher Education (1999), College in Black and White: African American Students in Predominantly White and Historically Black Public Universities (1991), and The Color Line and the Quality of Life in America (1987).

KIMBERLY A. GRIFFIN is a fourth-year doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles in the Higher Education and Organizational Change division of the Department of Education. Prior to her doctoral work at UCLA, Kimberly was Assistant Dean of Graduate Education at the Stanford University. She received her bachelor’s degree at Stanford University in Psychology (1999) and master’s degree in Education Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park (2001). Her research interests include the experiences and outcomes of African American students and professors, relationships within higher education, and the impact of interactions with diverse peers on student outcomes. Her dissertation focuses on the impact of student interaction on the experiences and outcomes of African American professors at research universities.

JOSEPH O. JEWELL is Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University, where he currently serves as the Interim Director of the Race & Ethnic Studies Institute. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Jewell’s research is concerned with historical intersections of race, class, and gender. He is the author of Race, Social Reform and the Making of a Middle Class: The American Missionary Association and Black Atlanta, 1870-1900 (2007). He is at work on a manuscript examining the rhetoric of race and class mobility in late nineteenth/early twentieth century American cities.

DE’SHA S. WOLF is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Higher Education and Organizational Change Program of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. She received her master’s degree at UCLA. She is a current graduate trainee in the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) Interdisciplinary Relationship Science Program and a former recipient of the Graduate Student Opportunity Fellowship at UCLA.

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