Why enrollment is increasing at HBCUs
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Earlier this summer, an EdWeek article cited that many of Louisiana's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) reported an increase in student enrollment between fall semesters 2013 and 2014. This trend is not unique to Louisiana. Recent data from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that nearly 38 percent of HBCUs reported a 10 percent increase in undergraduate student enrollment between fall semesters 2013 and 2014.

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This sharp increase comes as little surprise considering, in just this year alone, the many challenges that black students and black communities have encountered, from students protesting against racial inequity across American colleges and universities to police killings. Stories highlighting racial tension and the continued oppression of black people both inside and out of higher education spaces flood national news. With a desire to obtain an excellent education, black students are choosing to attend HBCUs because these institutions often provide safe spaces for learning.

HBCUs stand firm as institutions that support critical thinking, cultivate young minds and empower African-American activism while reminding students that these spaces were built for them specifically. A recent working paper published by the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions and written by Terrell Strayhorn, professor at The Ohio State University, demonstrated that this positive messaging has a lasting impact. Both Strayhorn's working paper and data from the National Survey of Black Americans demonstrate that black students who attend HBCUs often have higher self-esteem, a more assured racial identity and a more successful elimination of psychological stress resulting from racial tension as compared to their black student counterparts who attend predominantly white institutions.

HBCUs foster intellectual growth in their students and simultaneously advocate for the social and political rights of the students they were born to serve. For example, shortly after the tragic killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, 34 HBCU presidents pledged to organize a symposium on gun violence. In a public letter, the college and university presidents noted that HBCUs "were the birthplace of the idea that black lives matter to our country." They also acknowledged the pain caused by senseless gun violence and the trauma that results from violence and intolerance. This type of advocacy on the part of HBCU leaders matters and does not go unnoticed by students. Vocalizing these issues provides safe spaces for black students and has contributed to the rise in enrollment within HBCUs.

Olu Burrell, a graduate of Howard University, agrees that HBCUs are a valuable asset as they assure students of the importance of their existence and intellectual growth. He states that, "the HBCU and student/alumni relationship is not a transactional one but a transformational one ... Howard University provided the opportunity and platform for [students] to not only see the value of our own black lives but to have the desire to affect our communities at large with the same belief."

Other students acknowledge the possibilities and potential that HBCUs create for students and alumni. Ndeh Willy Anyu, a two time B.A. and M.A. graduate of North Carolina Central University, states that at his HBCU, "through programming and peer/mentorship organizations, students were able to engage in spaces where historically they were not represented. This allowed them, myself included, to foresee a future where they could make any and all dreams become a reality."

Yet another HBCU graduate, Bejidé Davis, acknowledged that her HBCU, Spelman College, provided an in depth and unabridged lesson in African and African-American history. She noted that, "once we know our story and the value in our history, no one can take it from us." She implores HBCUs to continue "assuring their students of the importance and value of their black bodies both on and off campus."

The increasing number of black students enrolled at HBCUs can primarily be attributed to the larger American social and political landscape. Black students who choose to attend an HBCU are doing so to continue learning their history, to engage in an environment that appreciates their contributions, and to cultivate their minds in safe and welcoming spaces.

At an unfortunate time, when the very presence of black people is too often debated, today's HBCUs continue to hold true to their principled mission while also assuring students that their lives and intellectual growth matters.

Washington is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.