AFRICANGLOBE – Crystal deGregory got on a plane in the Bahamas 14 years ago with middling grades, limited funds and muted ambition.
She was headed to Nashville’s Fisk University, where a recruiter said she could unlock her potential and realize new goals.
“Fisk gave me the sense of self-worth and an army of people who told me I could do what I was attempting to do,” said deGregory, a first-generation college graduate.
Now a professor with advanced degrees from Vanderbilt University, deGregory seeks to offer other promising students the same chance. She teaches history at Tennessee State University, another historically Black college.
“They (students) need to see it’s possible for you to be young, Black and a success,” she said.
When thousands marched on Washington half a century ago, many of the Black students who were there came from historically Black colleges and universities, which had educated the best and brightest African-American students for nearly two centuries — including the speaker who won the day: Martin Luther King Jr., a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta.
The role of those colleges has evolved over time, but their legacy continues to echo across American society.
During segregation, historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, were the only options for higher education widely available to African Americans.
Today, many highly talented Black students attend majority White institutions concerned about diversity. They’re often drawn by full scholarships, and enrollment at HBCUs has plunged as a result. HBCUs now graduate 24% of African Americans vs. more than 90% during the height of the civil rights movement. These schools enroll 11% of Black students in the country yet represent fewer than 3% of America’s colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
HBCU advocates say the schools remain as vital as when segregation was legal. Their missions have shifted to a focus on educating first-generation college students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. That’s a population not always welcome at mainstream universities, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies Black colleges.
“A lot of institutions don’t want to take chances on graduation rates going down or to have to invest resources to educate students from low-income homes,” she said.
HBCUs produce a quarter of Blacks who earn doctorate degrees and train large numbers of students in the science and engineering fields, Gasman said.
Focusing on such an underserved population brings even greater challenges as these schools struggle to find financial support. Fisk administrators leased the university’s prized Stieglitz art collection — a gift to the university from artist Georgia O’Keeffe — to an Arkansas art museum after a lengthy court battle with Tennessee’s attorney general, who tried to block the transaction.
St. Paul’s College in Virginia closed in June after years of struggling to remain afloat. Morehouse, considered one of the HBCU flagships, furloughed its faculty and staff earlier this year to recoup from a drop in enrollment.
Stricter qualifications for the federal Parent PLUS Loan program continue to leave hundreds of HBCU students without the financial aid they need to cover expenses.
“When you are an undersourced institution serving under-resourced people, you are going to have some problems,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans.
“We are having the same challenges as other institutions. Alumni are feeling the impact of the economy, and they are holding back on their funds because they don’t have the resources as well.”
Critics say the need for HBCUs is becoming less significant, but Kimbrough said King’s dream of equality is far from realized, especially in academia.
And as much as predominantly White institutions claim to value diversity, they still are not admitting enough Black students, he said.
“More people are criticizing the existence of HBCUs, but no one jumps to the defense of Black students who attend predominantly White institutions and deal with racism,” he said. “They may heavily recruit Black students, but they don’t make it a welcoming environment.”
By: Nancy DeVille