Relevant or Remnant: Are HBCUs still relevant in today’s climate?

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Dr. Gerald Hood, 81, started at Clark College – now Clark Atlanta University- in 1955.

Ariel View of Clark College

“I cleaned bathrooms and polished door knobs to earn 17 cents an hour to help pay some of the funds for school,” he said.

In the 1950s, people of color could only attend an HBCU. Now, the once-required institutions are facing low enrollment, lack of funding and other issues that call their modern relevancy into question

Hood admired his older brother who decided to attend Clark College when he was 18.
This motivated Hood to attend Clark College. “I was always trying to do whatever my older wanted to do,” he said.

Left to right: Dr. Hood, his mother, sister, and brother

Graduating with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, he wanted to go to medical school. Hood also wanted to confront the existing conditions that kept blacks from attending white institutions. So, he applied to Emory University’s School of Medicine in 1959 and was denied.

Dr. Hood and his mother at his undergraduate graduation at Clark College

“I am sorry. I must write you that we are not authorized to consider admission a member of the Negro race (sic),” the letter read. The director of admissions declined his application and sent back his $5 application fee.

The original letter from the Emory University School of Medicine Director of Admissions Board that was sent back to Dr. Hood denying him entry to the school due to his race [Provided by Dr. Hood]
After he was denied to Emory, he decided to go to Howard University and join the master’s program in biochemistry for two years. Later, he chose to attend the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Despite his obstacles, he has been practicing for over 50 years now.

During an interview with Fox 5 Atlanta, Hood talked about how he felt during his graduation at Clark College when he realized that they gave a professor from Emory an honorary degree.

He said he felt funny and bothered watching him come to his college and receiving a degree, while he was denied because of the color of his skin.

The Current State of HBCUs

In the past decade, the relevancy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) has been questioned. These institutions have faced issues such as low enrollment rates, loss of accreditation, financial restrictions, and scandal.

HBCUs are defined as educational institutions that were built before 1964 with the pivotal mission of educating young African Americans. These schools have existed for almost two centuries. Originally created with the objective of obtaining the status of a higher learning institution for black students as the effect of Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Additionally, HBCUs were created by northern black and white missionaries, the federal government’s Freedmen’s Bureau, and famous philanthropists.

There are 101 HBCUs in the United States. Nine of those are in Georgia including Albany State University, Clark Atlanta University, Fort Valley State University, Interdenominational Theological Center, Morehouse College, Morehouse College of Medicine, Morris Brown College, Savannah State University, and Spelman College.

The majority of HBCUs were founded in the Reconstruction Era as black Americans sought a formal education. According to a 2017 an NBC article, the creation of the HBCU “played a huge role in creating the black middle class and have remained central to African-American life in the United States.”

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015, nearly 300,000 students attended an HBCU, but that made up only 9 percent of the total number of black college students in America.

In the past few decades, however, several schools’ financial funding have declined, and some have even closed.

Enrollment has played a huge part in this as well. According to a 2018 article by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Enrollment rose to its zenith, about 325,000, in 2010, the year after Barack Obama became president. But today, the tide that brought so many African-Americans into America’s middle class seems to be shifting. In the five years following that 2010 spike, enrollment declined by 10 percent, compared to the 4 percent drop for all colleges during that period, federal data shows.”

Jamal Touré, adjunct instructor at Savannah State University, says the HBCU success is directly tied to the “black scholarship” and the level of financial stability of black America.

“Looking at the [current] poverty level of African people in this country, we would have even more within the throws of poverty if we did not have HBCUs. Our schools produce the graduates,” Touré said. “When you see them, they go off to graduate school or go into the military. They become officers in the military and become doctors, specialists, and people trained regarding having the graduate degrees from HBCUs.”

Hood says that the enrollment plays a critical part in the prosperity of HBCUs.

“I know that HBCUs have to have a minimal number of students just to breakeven. Since there is a limited amount of alumni donations. For some unknown reason, we don’t give back. Our students leave angry, blame everyone else for their struggles, especially the schools, and forget about the chance given to them by HBCUs.”

Enrollment is one of the factors that determines how much funding an institution receives from state and federal government funds.

Relevant or a Relic of the Past?

While most black students in the United States do not attend an HBCU, the African-American-centric institutions account for larger graduation rates.

According to the United Negro College Fund, the 3 percent of America’s colleges and universities that are HBCUs produce almost 20 percent of all African American graduates and 25 percent of African American graduates in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

People who attended an HBCU agree that it provided relevancy in their lives.

Associate Professor at Morehouse School of Medicine Dr. Yolanda Wimberly went to the University of Memphis located in Memphis, Tenn., which is a predominantly white school for her undergraduate education. She attended the HBCU Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., for her graduate studies.

Dr. Wimberly Photo taken by Morehouse School of Medicine

She said the college experience is more than a regular college student experience, especially at an HBCU.

“College is an experience. Yes, college is an opportunity for you to learn more, but it also a social experience,” Wimberly said.

“What HBCUs do is allow for African American students in particular to increase their self-esteem, self-awareness, their socialization skills, and for some of them to gain the confidence they need to be successful in a majority world.”

Touré, of Savannah State, says he believes that HBCUs are still relevant because the general American public has not created a society that is fair to black people.

“HBCUs are still relevant and necessary for this society because we have not created a society that is fair.” – Amir Jamal Touré [Photo by Savannah State University]

“HBCUs bring about a degree in a level of fairness in the society because we now create a type of leadership of intelligentsia that’s coming here [to HBCUs] that will now go and change and help better the world,” he said.

He says that black institutions are “absolutely pertinent” to American society currently.

Clark Atlanta University alumna Constance Mack-Andrews said she agrees HBCUs are still relevant, but in a new way because they opened options for African-Americans.

Mack-Andrews also worked on a dissertation that talked about HBCU relevancy [Photo taken by Institute of Higher Education University of Georgia]
“I think the relevance has shifted in light of that there are options for African-Americans now who want to pursue a higher education, but the need for HBCUs still exist,” she said.
Hood, Clark College alumni, said that HBCUs are very important and just as relevant as they were back in the 1950s.

“I found out that without HBCUs, that I would probably would not have had a chance to go to college and I appreciate them,” he said. “I am at a point where I think without HBCUs, the journey would not have occurred. Because HBCUs did occur, it was difficult, but straight forward. You did what you had to do. You knew where your endpoint was.”

“For some it’s the first chance. For some it’s the last chance and for some it’s their rebirth,” he added.

When he was denied from medical school, he kept pressing on and said how HBCUs at the time were a lifeline for most blacks and how difficult it was to endure the struggles of racism in education.

“Without HBCUs, that [moving forward] would not have been possible because other schools would only take one or two students. So, it was necessary to perform and do well in what we needed to do in school,” he said.

When he got into medical school (one of two black medical schools), he said that he found that it was a very different type of atmosphere.

Hood has been practicing medicine for over 50 years [Photo provided by Dr. Hood]
“Some instructors didn’t want you there and they didn’t want you to participate. Some instructors wanted you there and they didn’t want to embarrass you, so they didn’t let you participate either,” he said. “When you got to the schools that were not HBCUs that nurtured and took care to any situation, you had to fend for yourself because no one wanted to be embarrassed.”

Antwan Yarbrough, junior at Savannah State, said he decided to attend an HBCU for the culture and focus on the African-American experience.

Antwan Yarbrough said choosing to attend an HBCU was the best thing he could have done. [Photo provided by Antwan Yarbrough]
“HBCUs are important because they provide a unique setting for the cultivation of black talent in America,” he said.

Yarbrough said students who attend HBCUs learn the importance of professionalism and can cultivate networking opportunities that they can use upon graduating.

“I feel as though our ancestors paved the way for us, and the sacrifices they went through to building such prestigious institutions.

“Attending an HBCU was my best choice at heart,” he said.

Fort Valley State University sophomore Aadianne Stephens disagrees. She believes that HBCUs are becoming a dying species.

Fort Valley sophomore, Aadianne Stephens, said that HBCUs should focus on staying open than just making the campuses look nice. [Photo taken by Aadianne Stephens]

“We have limited amounts in each state, and we can’t keep up with the funds to keep it in school. Making the campus look nice is fine but making sure we stay open and keeping the students wanting to attend and to stay is in our best interest,” she said.

Connor Davis, also from Fort Valley, said he believes that HBCUs are critical to black education. “The world isn’t just black and white anymore. Things aren’t as restrictive as they were 60-70 years ago,” Davis said.

Fort Valley student, Connor Davis, said that HBCUs are critical to black education [Photo provided by Connor Davis]

However, he says, “HBCUs are becoming obsolete.”

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Davis believes that the world is changing, and that people should not narrow their experience and slow down their progression to the outside world. “The world is changing, and we live in a melting pot. We’re always preaching equality, but we are limiting our cultural development and reasoning,” he said.

The “HBCUs Are Not Relevant” Narrative

Several articles and headlines have been written questioning the importance of these institutions and the value of an HBCU degree.

Touré says that the people who declare HBCUs as irrelevant have only a surface-level understanding of the matter.

“Most people know American mythology not American history,” he said.

“When it comes to American thought, it’s still based on American mythology. They say it’s not relevant, but when you look at it and say, ‘Are African Americans being produced as graduates at these other schools?’ No, they are not,” he said.

On the other hand, Wimberly says that the choice to attend an HBCU depends on the values of the student. She uses the example of someone comparing an HBCU to a predominantly white school such as Georgia State University. GSU may have more resources, she says, but they have different funding, different missions, and different reasons for existing.

“Just because someone has more resources doesn’t necessarily make them better. Different people have different needs,” she said.

Some resources are not necessary for a quality education, Wimberly said. “I think you have to look at it as ‘Do HBCUs provide the outcomes that you want?’ which are students who graduate from college and become employed upon graduation,” she said.

Wimberly says to look at the outcomes and measurements that a school provides.

“I think if you look at something that would be comparative, you may see that some HBCUs have higher rates of graduating African American students than majority institutions,” she said.

“When you look at the outcome metrics that are very specific, which is graduation, I think we would more than likely come out on top. A lot of times people look at it as ‘OK, they have a football stadium and you don’t, or we have this, and they don’t.’”

Wimberly said many notable leaders come from the HBCU education.

“Look at all our African-American leaders in the country, past and present, a large percentage of them actually come from HBCUs despite the fact that majority institutions take African-Americans now,” she said.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 [Photo provided by Wiki Images]
Oprah Winfrey graduated from Tennessee State University in 1986. [Photo provided by Flickr – Mario Loubier]
Taraji P. Henson graduated from Howard University in 1995 [Photo provided by Flickr – Lovelove71]

For another example, Wimberly used the percentage of African-American doctors in the United States. She said that Morehouse University and Howard University produce 70 percent of the African-American positions in the country even though all schools in the country allow blacks to go to medical school.

Mack-Andrews, of Clark Atlanta, says people tend to look at an HBCU as lesser than. “It’s not lesser than. A lot of that plays into why some people may argue that HBCUs are not relevant anymore or never have been,” she said.

She believes the problem that is happening at several HBCUs is connected to the administrative or governance perspective of the institutions.

Sydney Warner, senior at Savannah State, says that she does believe that HBCUs are relevant and that there is no better time to be around a learning atmosphere that blacks share with common goals.

“There’s never going to be another time in our lives where we can be around people who live the same lives we do. After this we are going into the real world and I feel like it’s important to take advantage of this time to learn and love yourselves,” she said.
Warner wanted to attend an HBCU from the beginning, however, she started school at Georgia Southern University.

“ I wanted to go to an HBCU because I was watching A Different World at the time. I was really obsessed with it, but my dad didn’t want me to go to one,” she said. “I did not like Georgia Southern because it’s a lot of racism there. I figured I should go with my gut and go to an HBCU. Savannah State was the closest to GSU so I could still see my friends and it was affordable.”

Warner said that if she would not have left GSU and crossed over to an HBCU she would not be in the major she is in now nor would she have the confidence that she currently has.

Warner also says that the reason that there is a narrative that HBCUs are not relevant is because of the time period.

“The reasons HBCUs were founded were because we weren’t able to get into other white institutions. Now that we can, people don’t necessarily see the same need, but they aren’t looking at the other reasons people go to an HBCU,” she said.

Hood said that certain people who go to HBCUs and students who attend institutions that are not HBCUs think they are better. He said if you attend Savannah State University or even Morehouse College, people will look as if you attend a high school.”

“We [HBCUs] are our own worst enemy at this time,’ he said.

Wounded but Still Standing: Morris Brown College

Photo taken by Morris Brown College

One of the HBCUs in Georgia that has been hit the hardest is Morris Brown College. Morris Brown used to enroll over 2,500 students. In 2002, the university lost its accreditation.

According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the loss of accreditation meant that students at Morris Brown College were no longer qualified for federal financial aid. Ever since then, the college has struggled to remain open. In 2012, the college filed for bankruptcy. Currently, an estimate of around 40 students are enrolled, according to an article about the current Interim President, Kevin James.

Several schools are dealing with a huge level of debt, declining enrollment, and their ability to stay relevant while competing in a super competitive environment for the top African American students.

However, according to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), “In total, the nation’s HBCUs generate $14.8 billion in economic impact annually; that’s equivalent to a ranking in the top 200 on the Fortune 500 list of America’s largest corporations.”

The offices of Academic Affairs, Admissions and Recruitments, Alumni Affairs, and the Office of the President were all contacted for interviews about the progression of Morris Brown College since their loss of accreditation, plans to move forward, and input on HBCU relevancy. Unfortunately, none of the offices were available to comment.

Fixing the Issues Internally and Remaining Relevant

Hill Hall – Savannah State University Photo taken by Isaiah Singleton

Some say HBCUs refuse to change and are losing value because of it.

Wimberly says that in order to ensure that what HBCUs are doing is the correct thing, HBCUs must internally audit themselves.

“At HBCUs, we tend to hold onto things for a long time and we tend to sometimes have challenges with change.

“We must constantly push and challenge ourselves to do better and be better,” she said.

Sometimes doing better and being better means that we must change the systems that are currently in place,” she said. Wimberly wants HBCUs to be able to encourage the youth to become an active part of the environment and take over. She said staff and faculty tend to stay at an HBCU, which can also make change difficult.

“With that, you get stagnation and you don’t get progression of thought. HBCUs have to be insightful and know that there are people out there competing for our students,” she said.

“The 2007 data from the U.S. Department of Education, there were 37,862 African Americans serving in full-time faculty positions at colleges and universities in the U.S. They made up 5.4 percent of all full-time faculty in American higher education. It turns out then that while black students are 12 percent of the total enrollments in higher education, the black presence in faculty ranks, on a percentage basis, is less than one half the black student enrollment figure,” according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE).

Touré suggests that HBCUs must understand and respect their consumers, the students. He describes the consumers as the scholars who attend the institutions.

“Sometimes you have people at institutions, not all, that don’t have sensitivity at all with regards to the consumers that are at the school. I say consumers because [the students] are paying for this education. You are the consumers,” he said. “Since you’re paying for the service, we need to make sure that we [faculty and staff] are catering to you well. We have to better our customer service skills because sometimes some of us are quite harsh unnecessarily that we have no empathy or sympathy.”

Wimberly said the HBCU mission serves the variety of students who are academically diverse.

“They have tremendous tradition with taking academically diverse students and giving them the support that they need and making them be able to be successful in life,” she said.

Touré said people who teach at an HBCU or work at an HBCU need to change their dynamics, especially if they do not come from that framework. He also said some egos get in the way of a positive consumer experience.

Touré believes teachers should meet students at their level and build them up.

“You cannot have a class of eight people and you fail five of them. You cannot have a class that you are teaching, and you say, ‘I have not given an A out in five years.’ That means you are not getting them to be proficient or excellent, it’s about your ego,” he said.

“You cannot act like you are doing a service to us when you are destroying us,” Touré said.

Hood directs the attention on the students and how they view HBCUs nowadays. “We have to change the mind of the students at HBCUs because they look their family aid as a check rather than looking at it as help to where they are going,” he said.

Creating A New Path for HBCUs

SSU students loving their HBCU [Photo by Isaiah Singleton]
Despite its problems, Morris Brown College currently has 50 students enrolled in a more condensed institution. Other colleges, such as South Carolina State University, also have found ways to bounce back from detrimental circumstances.

Touré said black people need to stand up and speak out about the importance and relevance of HBCUs, or they will close.

“Funding will go down, and [they will] change how they function. Some of them may become like West Virginia State University or Bluefield State University schools that are HBCUs, but most of the populations are not African-Americans,” he said.
He says that some of the issues are based in racism.

“When we sit quiet about it, we don’t address it,” he said, “but if we can maintain groups of people who are excited about their HBCUs, we will soar.”

Fort Valley State freshman Tariq Thomas said that his experience has taught him the relevancy of the education he’s received.

Freshman at Fort Valley, Tariq Thomas surrounds himself with a mentor who teaches him about HBCU history [Photo provided by Tariq Thomas]

“As an HBCU student, it’s incredibly relevant that we have these colleges and universities due to the history of predominately white institutions denying African Americans access to education.

HBCUs represent what America used to be and what it currently is,” he said.

Wimberly said she hopes HBCUs will find ways to collaborate more with each other and predominantly white institutions.

“What’s mine is not just mine anymore; What’s mine may be all of ours so that we can group together to still be in existence,” she said. “We’re going to have to, as an HBCU [community], to be aware of our strength and areas of collaboration to make it. Long are the days of us being able to stand alone and be OK alone. It’s going to require a thought process and a new strategy for us to still remain relevant.”

Students at Savannah State Jeilynn Brown, Ashley Jordan, and Erin Jackson believes that HBCUs are relevant because they give black students a home and a family [Photo by Isaiah Singleton]
Allura Jones says that she chose an HBCU because she wanted to continue the goal of the founder of Savannah State, Richard Wright, whose goal was to ensure blacks received an education. [Photo by Isaiah Singleton]
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