During the time that I’ve been researching and writing for the Black History Month series I’ve started to think more seriously about graduate school. After receiving my bachelors degree from the University of Washington I thought about graduate school but opted to focus on my salon to allow me the flexibility of writing and attending local events. The fact that my dad hadn’t agreed to pay for college past four years also helped with my decision. This past month has made me reconsider, a lot of the information that I learned and the stories I’ve reflected on made me wonder how enlightening of an experience it would be for me to immerse myself in studies at a historically Black college or university (HBCU). A HBCU is defined as a college or university originally founded to educate students of African decent in the United States. The need for HBCU schools grew out of the recognition that oppressive forces within our country’s white supremacist society failed to serve the minds of African Americans. To this day our society continues to fail young Black children from public school to higher education, we are the ones who fall short of the support without education. Now we must realize that this “falling short” within our society is more intentional than mistake. HBCUs did the work to fill the gaps that existed between us and securing our social and financial future, but these insertions are closing putting futures of those generations after us at risk.
When I graduated from high school I was very interested in attending Spelman College, a HBCU and all women campus. It is located in Atlanta where my grandfather and his family lived. With Atlanta being a densely Black populated urban area, like Detroit, I knew I’d be comfortable there. I imaged myself graduating walking across a stage surrounded by a group of beautiful and intelligent Black women who, like myself, took pride in their culture and the work of those Black women who paved the way for us to stand here today. However my father, being my main source of college funding advised against my attending Spelman and suggested choosing a public state university. He had nothing against Spelman but after speaking to colleagues and friends he feared that my degree would not be as widely recognized from a HBCU in comparison to one attained from a predominantly white institution (PWI). As a recent high school graduate trying to please, I let go of that dream and applied to public state universities.
We fail to realize that thoughts like that of my father are the same ideologies that keep us from supporting Black owned businesses and working with Black service providers like doctors, accountant and lawyers. There’s a negative stigma attached to Blackness in this country that keeps a glass ceiling over the head of our entire community. If we’re hesitant to support ourselves, how can we expect anyone else to? This includes attending a HBCU; in the same way that we are hesitant to go to a Black owned businesses because it doesn’t have enough good reviews or the cashier has an attitude, we look for any excuse not to support rather than excusing the excuses and embracing the promise of financial sustainability with supporting our own community. I sure would feel different about paying my tuition if it was coming out of my pocket to support the pocket of someone like myself, who look’s like me, whose children look like me, whose life is defined by the same struggle against white supremacy as my own. In attending a HBCU my tuition dollars go towards the empowerment of my community, my tuition embraces our hirsute and its culture. That is an empowering way to use my money.
In honor of Black History Month coming to an end, I want to reflect on HBCUs and their role in our society because it seems as though our institutions are under attack. While Spelman is one of the more popular HBCUs with less of a threat to permanently close anytime soon, even Spelman College cannot be considered completely out of the line of fire, “Even though they have a nearly 50% alumni giving rate, Spelman still doesn’t have the same resources of a Wellesley or a Bryn Mawr,” University of Pennsylvania education professor Marybeth Gasman, who heads the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), told business insider in an interview. Since their establishment, many HBCUs have been forced to close, most prominently due to under enrollment and lack of funding. If there are many parents and students who think like my father and his colleagues than this lack of enrollment and funding is sadly no surprise. If we continue to allow ourselves to make decisions off of a pattern of thinking that degrades the product of HBCU degrees, then they eventually will all be closed. HBCUs have struggled significantly with unequal government funding and public policy that cause negative effects on the schools. For example, the North Carolina state senate bill, “Access to Affordable College Education Act (Senate Bill 873)” has been a major attack on Black colleges and universities. The act proposes to change the name of the schools and reduce tuition to $500/semester, costing universities tens of thousands of dollars in revenue. There are three HBCU colleges that are threatened to close as a result: Elizabeth City State University, Winston-Salem State University, and Fayetteville State University as a result there’ve been protests across the country. HBCUs have been under attack throughout American history. The government places budgeting limitations and tuition cut policies on our institutions in attempt to fame them as “making college more affordable”, yet their making our colleges obsolete. How can universities operate if their forced to cut tuition without any guarantee of reimbursement? Who is footing the bill if not the students or the state? In these situations our colleges are forced to close. In addition to this PWIs are cutting affirmative action policies and redefining diversity which has a negative effect on African American attendance. According to the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, currently 11% of African-American students are enrolled in HBCUs while the minority institutions only represent 3% of all colleges and universities. PWI’s dominate the academic sphere while Black students needs aren’t being met there, this is a problem for a country seemingly attempting to embrace its Black population. It’s hard to believe while public education is being defunded, affirmative action policies are being cut in higher education and diversity requirements are being redefined nationwide. Because public education majorly serves low-income students of color it’s being defunded reinforces the public-school-to-prison pipeline and the lack of policy to support Blacks enrollment in higher education puts the nail in the coffin for many families.
In addition to policy changes there are multiple other circumstances that threaten HBCUs. In 2013 St. Paul College in Lawrenceville, VA was forced to close permanently due to debts that totaled between $4-$5 million and led to the loss of accreditation after 125 years of operation. The college was stripped of it’s accreditation for lack of faculty with terminal degrees and insufficient proof of financial sustainability. Prior to closing the school was on a two-year probation, the university struggled to rebound as it primarily served first generation low-income students. At the beginning of it’s probation, Fall 2011 it had about 111 students enrolled. After enrollment slipped below 100 the university proposed a merger-aqusition with St. Augustine, but after those plans were rejected the university finally shut down in 2013. While St. Paul is one of the more recent HBCU closures, financial instability and under enrollment caused permanent closings in a series of HBCUs throughout American history. Financial debt, like in the case of St. Paul, lead to the loss Western University in 1943, Kittrell College in 1975, Mississippi Industrial College in 1982, Bishop College in 1988, Prentiss College in 1989 and Mary Holmes College in 2004.
HBCUs have been a central part of American education for over 150 years, they are at the center of Black history and research. The history of Black scientists, educators, ministers and inventors are well documented, recorded, researched and kept alive in our HBCU libraries. To lose centers in Black history is threatening to not only Black culture, but American culture as a whole. The campuses are like a small country where we can immerse ourselves in the work of our ancestors and those who dedicated their lives to making sure we can have a competitive and substantial education. Going to a HBCU is an honor and a privilege which is why I will be searching for a HBCU program for myself. So long as we allow ourselves to degrade the work of our people, then their legacies will diminish. We must reverse this trend by embracing our HBCUs.