The Case for Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The last two years have been hard for everyone. 

Every sector of our society was impacted as we fought to protect our most vulnerable institutions from a once-in-a-century pandemic. Retail, entertainment, healthcare—everything felt the hit. Higher education was no exception, with admissions dropping 3.2% since 2020.

Interestingly, historically Black colleges and universities not only weathered the storm but saw admissions jump 2.5%. The New York Times reported this summer that applications to HBCUs rose 30% between 2018 and 2021, and 40,000 applications are expected to be submitted this year — four times that of 2016. 

Why is that? What makes HBCUs, a network of schools nearly 200 years old that emerged to serve African American students when most schools would not, uniquely resilient?

My answer is personal. 

In 1991, I was a smart kid and pretty good musician about to graduate from high school in southern Florida. Even though I had no political dog in the fight or any military background, I had all but decided my future was in the Army, playing in the military band.

Chance had it that my high school band director was a graduate from Xavier University of Louisiana, an HBCU. He suggested I think about college, specifically a Black college, instead of the military. This one conversation changed the trajectory of my life.

Ultimately, I chose Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach — making me the first in my family to attend and graduate from college. You can imagine that I was not particularly prepared for the experience. I recall a phone conversation I had with my mother shortly after meeting my campus band director, Dr. Harold Bray.

“Yeah, he’s a doctor, too. I guess he teaches and then works in a hospital to deliver babies,” I told my mom on the phone, astonished. 

Applications to HBCUs rose 30% between 2018 and 2021, and 40,000 applications are expected to be submitted this year—four times that of 2016.

I laugh now, but 18-year-old me had never met a Black Ph.D. before — I had no frame of reference of what the fruits of academic labor looked like. I had never seen so many Black people and students my age all wanting to be better: They had ambition and dreams, and those ambitions and dreams began to rub off on me. Suddenly, I was taking courses I’d never thought to take and achieving at a high level. 

I thought, “If these people can do it, so can I.”

What I didn’t quite appreciate at the moment but am grateful for now is that Bethune-Cookman was giving me models of success I had never seen before. I was witnessing ambition in real time as my fellow students booked it to class and camped out in libraries. I was seeing the results of that ambition in my teachers and professors who opened the world of science and history to me while treating me like their own child.

Bethune-Cookman gave me a new appreciation for Black culture, my people and everything we have contributed to the world, sometimes despite the world. Every day I swam in the waters of Black excellence, and it made my chest swell with pride. 

I’m not here to say that every Black child must attend a Bethune-Cookman, Hampton or Howard, or that predominantly white institutions are somehow subpar. But I do feel that foundational pride and excellence is a unique gift given only by the halls and campuses of HBCUs. 

Young Black people who watched the spread of President Trump’s naked bigotry and the deluge of Black lives turned into hashtags looked to HBCUs as a welcome respite. I remember reading about four young women, all excellent students with acceptance letters to our country’s most prestigious Ivies, saying they chose schools like Hampton and Spelman because “College is the time when you’re trying to figure out who you are. … It’s impossible to figure that out in a space where you not only feel like you have to assimilate to fit into that space, when they didn’t invite you there or they tolerate you there, but you have to prove that your existence has value.” 

Even Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who launched The 1619 Project, found a better fit teaching at Howard, after her own alma mater, the University of North Carolina, refused her tenure—a move blamed on the school’s conservative board who did not like her scholarship on slavery and race.

Foundational pride and excellence is a unique gift given only by the halls and campuses of HBCUs. 

That sense of camaraderie and purpose may explain why, even though HBCUs only account for 9% of Black college graduates, they excel at graduating the best and brightest. They act as an incubator for people determined to make the world more equitable. Half of our country’s Black doctors, lawyers and teachers turn their tassels at an HBCU, and I can’t help but think it’s because those schools offer something more than a good curriculum.

However, despite their renewed strength, HBCUs need our help. The United Negro College Fund released a study showing that the federal funding gap between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions quadrupled between 2003 and 2015, from $400 to $1,600 per student. And while we know Black folks have always had to make dimes out of nickels, there’s no excuse for this targeted inequity. 

That’s why educators and students were elated to see the Biden-Harris administration fund HBCUs to the tune of nearly $6 billion in federal funding starting last year — a welcome sign from a government that seems to understand the value of Black education. The truth is, elections matter. Who is to say what happens to HBCU funding if a politician who works overtime to erase our history and lauds the criminals who take our lives as “heroes” gets into the White House? 

Education has proven to be one of the most reliable tools in Black America’s quest for equality in this country. As a leader, a teacher and a father, I encourage anyone who can to apply, matriculate and graduate — you don’t need me to recite the numbers showing the financial advantages it can bring. But as a graduate from my beloved Bethune-Cookman University, I ask you to consider joining the legacy of those like Vice President Kamala Harris, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison to swell the ever-expanding ranks of Black excellence that has already left an indelible mark on American history. 

Fedrick C. Ingram is the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, serving 1.7 million members, including pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; school and college support staff; higher education faculty; federal, state and local government employees; and nurses and other healthcare professionals. Ingram is the immediate past president of the 140,000-member Florida Education Association. He also has served as an elected vice president of the AFT’s executive council.

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