New Research on Non-Black Student Life at HBCUs

In 2013, the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania released its inaugural report, “The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”

The report provides an overview of how the racial demography of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has changed since their initial establishment in the post–Civil War era. For example, although HBCUs have always embraced racial diversity, the student population in the 1950s was nearly 100 percent black. The report reveals, however, that by the 1980s, black students comprised 80 percent of the total student body at HBCUs, and as of 2013, this proportion was down to 76 percent.

As the black population enrolled in HBCUs has declined somewhat over the years, the population of other racial and ethnic groups has increased. Data from the report indicate that the number of white students attending HBCUs has hovered between 10 and 13 percent over the course of the last 20 years. In the past 30 years, HBCUs have experienced a significant increase in [email protected] enrollment, particularly in regions with growing [email protected] populations. Similarly, the report reveals that HBCUs have, since 2001, seen a 60 percent increase in the number of Asian Americans who attend. At present, the white, [email protected], and Asian American populations at HBCUs comprise 13 percent, three percent, and one percent, respectively.

What the Demographic Shift Means

The changing racial demography of HBCUs raises critical questions for those in leadership positions at HBCUs. My recent monograph, Exploring Diversity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Implications for Policy and Practice, coauthored with C. Rob Shorette II and Marybeth Gasman, as well as forthcoming research conducted with Andrew Arroyo and Dina Maramba, discuss the opportunities and challenges that may result from the increased racial diversity of HBCUs. According to our research, Asian American and [email protected] students attend HBCUs because of the proximity of the institution to their homes, affordable tuition, and quality academic programs.

As HBCUs become more diverse, they will need to ensure that they are providing activities — both inside and outside of the classroom — that appeal to students from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Extracurriculars

My colleagues and I interviewed non-black recent graduates from an HBCU in a southern state and asked them to reflect on their experiences at their institution. Students felt that this particular HBCU lacked programs and activities that appealed to their interests. They emphasized that while faculty and staff were supportive, the institution provided programming and activities that primarily catered to black students. For instance, many activities on campus were centered around black fraternity and sorority experiences. Because participants in the study were not members of these organizations, they did not attend the events. Some students did, however, start campus organizations that reflected elements of their cultural identities, including a chapter of a [email protected] sorority on campus.

Classroom Culture

Another forthcoming study revealed similar findings for an HBCU in the mid-Atlantic region. Many of the participants indicated that faculty were too Afrocentric in their teaching. Students we interviewed felt that professors at HBCUs focused too much on the black experience and they were not knowledgeable about other cultures, which prevented HBCU professors from fostering an inclusive climate inside the classroom.

Like the participants from the southern HBCU, the Asian American and [email protected] participants also indicated that activities and programs on campus were mainly intended for black students, and they often felt excluded.

What the Future Holds

Our research posits that the racial demography of HBCUs will continue to change. While this article has pointed out that non-black students sometimes feel estranged inside and outside the classroom at HBCUs, there are inclusive programs and activities that could be implemented. One suggestion for schools is to plan campus activities that appeal to a diverse group of students. Within the classroom, HBCU leaders should encourage faculty to integrate aspects of other cultures into the curriculum, since one of the chief complaints from survey participants was that faculty lacked knowledge about the cultures of other groups. To help faculty at HBCUs become familiar with other cultures, leaders may consider holding workshops and forums on multicultural competence in teaching.

As noted, HBCUs have always been open to racially diverse populations; however, they have focused on cultivating a dynamic, positive, and nurturing environment for black students. Nevertheless, it is evident that HBCUs must find a way to continue supporting their traditional student demographic while also fostering inclusive campuses for all students.

David Hibbler Jr. of the University of South Florida contributed to this piece.

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