Last updateMon, 26 Aug 2019 4am

HBCUs Are Not Segregated Institutions

What is it about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that gets under some people's skin? All too often, I receive calls, e-mail messages, or comments on blog posts from those who think that HBCUs are "vestiges of segregation," promote racism, segregate black students, and should not exist. These same individuals fail to understand that the United States has Historically White Institutions (HWIs) as well— many that are still very, very white in terms of student, faculty, and administrative makeup.

Both HBCUs and HWIs were created during a time of immense segregation. HWIs were created to educate whites and kept African Americans out for a long time— save a few exceptions. Some HBCUs were created by African Americans with a thirst for learning, often with the help of missionaries and philanthropists (for various reasons). Others were created by Southern states in an effort to keep blacks out of HWIs. These institutions were separate and were never funded at equal levels compared to their white counterparts. In all but a few cases, they are still not funded equally.

Regardless of their founding and their lack of funding, HBCUs have a long history of shaping and educating African Americans. Although some of them struggle today—just as some HWIs do—they continue to make substantial contributions to the lives, education, and careers of African-American students and others. They are a choice for students, not a mandate as in the past.

One reason why some people cannot understand the role and purpose of HBCUs is that they assume that "black" institutions are inferior. This assumption is tied to a deep racism that permeates our nation; that is, black = inferior. Others assume that HBCUs segregate when, in fact, they are often more diverse in makeup— students, faculty, and staff—than HWIs. Still others think that you must believe in segregation if you support HBCUs as an educational choice.

I can assure you that one can support HBCUs and also support integration of HWIs—and HBCUs, for that matter. Think about it this way: Can one support women's colleges and co-ed institutions? I'd say yes. Students benefit from having different educational choices. As Earl Richardson, the former president of Morgan State University has said over and over, the term "Historically Black College and University" denotes history. It does not mean that HBCUs are segregated institutions in the current day.

I have read the research—and conducted quite a bit of it—and I know that for some students HBCUs offer the best educational experience. For years, sociologists and higher-education researchers have shown, using empirical data, that HBCUs build self-esteem, and challenge and support their students in meaningful ways that lead to future success. If not for HBCUs, I often wonder what the landscape of graduate and professional education would look like. I know for sure that we would boast far fewer African-American scholars and leaders.

Before criticizing HBCUs, people should take the time to read the history of these institutions and American racism. The role of HBCUs and the reasons for their existence become much clearer with a better understanding of these institutions' historic and current contributions to society.

A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).