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Why HBCUs Matter

“Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs have played a role in enriching the lives of not just African Americans, but our entire country.” -Ric Keller

Long before Beyonce’s Homecoming-themed Coachella performance highlighted the dope, cultural elements of HBCUs (and homecoming) for the world, I already knew HBCUs were dope! I am a proud alumna of The University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the Flagship of the Delta, home to the Golden Lions and the Marching Musical Machine of the Midsouth (M4). UAPB is the second oldest land-grant institution in the state of Arkansas, founded in 1873. The founding of my HBCU is a story indicative of all historically black colleges and universities. These institutions were created to educate African Americans, not permitted to attend predominantly white institutions (PWI), typically providing degrees in fields like education, agriculture, and the sciences. To know the story of HBCUs and their importance to me, their importance to the African American community, and their importance to the nation as a whole, is to know the story of cultural and academic excellence, the story of a rich legacy and commitment to community, and the story of resilience.

HBCUs represent Black Excellence. HBCUs have been producing many of the world’s powerful leaders, entertainers, and achievers since 1837. I first became aware of what an HBCU was when I watched the movie School Daze and the television show, “A Different World.” Both illuminated higher education on fictional HBCU campuses. Through the intentionality of comedic plot twists, the representation of Pan-Hellenic Council sororities and fraternities, and subliminal messages about race, education, and social class, I relished in seeing diversity among black people on a black college campus. The characters were all complex individuals, non-confirming of the stereotypical black images often shown on television at that time. These college students came from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds. Most importantly, the commonality of greatest significance for both School Daze and “A Different World” was the setting. Both had an HBCU milieu that shaped the characters. There was an apparentness that HBCUs provided a supportive environment that fostered self-confidence and perseverance. I couldn’t wait to go to college, especially if this was to be my experience, a school focused on the advancement of black students. A whole campus for students like me.

HBCUs have a long-standing commitment to serving students from low-income households and first-generation college students. Historically black colleges have been relentlessly focused on increasing opportunity for their students and communities. At HBCUs, there is great responsibility to ensure that students receive an education not only focused on academia, but also engrossed in understanding black culture, black history, and the legacy of black people. There is purposive intentionality in helping students understand what being young, educated, and black means in society. The most valuable aspects of the education I received at an HBCU could not be discovered in a book. For me and many of my peers, it was greater than that. It was an awakening of heritage and culture in education that I had never experienced during my K-12 matriculation. For the first time in my educational life, I was part of an education system tailored to me and my culture. For the first time, I was a critical part of the culture, shaping my learning and success.

HBCUs are resilient. Historically Black Colleges and Universities have thrived in the face of adversity and limited funding. For over a century, they have been the foundation of preparing young African American professionals. In recent years, more and more HBCU graduates are getting their degrees in STEM-related disciplines. In “Six Reasons HBCUs Are More Important Than Ever,” Dr. Michael L. Lomax, CEO of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), provides that “the nation’s 106 HBCUs make up just 3% of America’s colleges and universities, yet they produce almost 20% of all African American graduates and 25% of African American graduates in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the critical industries of the future.” Additionally, “50 percent of black engineers and 65 percent of black doctors earned their degrees from historically black colleges or universities."

When I think about the contributions, innovation, and perseverance of HBCUs, I see this as a great opportunity for one of NMSI’s core programs, HBCUTeach, to partner with institutions who have been “doing the work” for over a century. Since their inception, HBCUs have been committed to advancing education for those furthest from opportunity and those simply denied opportunity.

Going to college was a privilege. Going to an HBCU was paradise. For me, attending an HBCU was one of the greatest decisions of my life. The lessons I learned, the relationships I formed, and friendships I gained, have shaped me tremendously. I carry those experiences with me daily and use them as motivation to continue to be of service to my community and to those furthest from opportunity.

For further reading, I invite you to review a recently commissioned landmark study by UNCF to measure HBCU impact.

HBCUs Make America Strong: The Positive Economic Impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities · The National HBCU Fact Sheet

Kimberly White is a Coach Development Manager for NMSI. She helps ensure that the current and retired teachers who lead NMSI's training for current educators and students are prepared and highly effective in their work.