HBCUs are still vital to American education

OPINION - HBCUs are not just relevant, they are a necessary tool of educational obtainment for some black, and even white, students...

Separate but equal, the HBCU experience offers top-notch education and diversity to its student body. U.S. News & World Report recently produced its annual ranking of the undergraduate education at historically black colleges and universities – HBCUs. As a product of Howard University – which was ranked as the country’s second best HBCU – it may come as no surprise that I believe that historically black colleges and universities continue to be a necessity.

Before undergrad, I was one of around 10 black people in my graduating high school class. As one of few, particularly a studious few, it was expected that I would be the interpreter of all things blacks among my schoolmates. A class reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God and the phonetic pronunciation of the characters’ names was left to me, the lone black student in my 9th grade English class. Despite my inability to truly grasp the dialect of the characters, I gave it a good old-fashioned try using reading comprehension and context. How ironic that four years later — despite the lack of college visits from predominantly black institutions — I would end up at Howard University, Zora Neale Hurston’s alma mater.

In May, President Barack Obama’s education budget reduced funding given to HBCUs by $85 million sparking alarm among school leaders and alumni. Cutting funds hurts everything from the infrastructure to research facilities at HBCUs. In a letter to President Obama, radio personality Tom Joyner wrote, “If you cut funding that directly affects the operations of these HBCUs, then some of these schools may not be around to educate the students receiving those Pell grants.”

We need those schools. Some question the need for historically black colleges and universities, believing that diversity can only come from black people interacting with people of other races. However, this perspective ignores the diversity within our group, often (wrongly) considered monolithic. Not only is there socio-economic and class diversity among African-Americans, there’s a mélange of blacks from the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe and Africa with their different perspectives.

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This diversity and the opportunity to be a part of world where, despite skin tone, the people differ so dramatically, is something most products of HBCUs relish. That doesn’t stop naysayers of the HBCU experience, frequently African-American counterparts, asking the big why. Why choose an all-black school in a predominantly white society? There are also those who ask why anyone would want to be surrounded by only black people.

To some, black schools can’t be as good as other colleges if there’s nothing but black people in attendance. The strides of famous HBCU alumni like Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, Ed Bradley, Alice Walker, Earl G. Graves, Douglas Wilder and even its current students are often ignored while these critics doubt black people’s ability to succeed in an all-black environment.

Others wonder if an HBCU limits one’s ability to communicate outside of a “black world.” That’s the equivalent of questioning whether or not Oprah Winfrey, also the product of an HBCU, is able to appeal to anyone except African-Americans.

Choosing an environment where your position, based on race or ethnicity, is never questioned doesn’t limit your ability to learn. For many, it fosters an environment that makes education more fulfilling. Interestingly, graduates of Ivy League universities are never questioned about their decision to attend a university that oft-times is too lilywhite to truly represent modern America.

HBCUs are not just relevant, they are a necessary tool of educational attainment for some black, and even white, students. Outstanding professors, affordable price tags, academic reputation, top-notch research facilities, and diversity are major selling points for such institutions. They certainly were for me when choosing Howard University.

HBCUs make up approximately 3% of colleges and universities, yet enroll about 16% of the African-American student body from high schools. Being black is not a prerequisite – all are welcomed at HBCUs. An HBCU is not an exclusionary education institution, it’s a college or university that was originally founded to educate African-Americans.

In 1870 Frederick Douglass, writing about the promise of Howard University said, “You might be led to think they were separated from slavery by a dozen centuries, and that they had never known other than culture and refinement.”

More than 100 years later, Howard – like many other HBCUs – still shows that promise.