In a research study that my colleague Dina C. Maramba and I conducted a few years ago on the ways in which minority students experience higher education, we gained some interesting insights into why some black students do not consider attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) for their postsecondary education experiences.
Specifically, our interviews with 19 black students revealed that they were disinclined to attend HBCUs because, among other things, they perceived such schools as lacking in diversity. Despite this belief, all of our study participants admitted that they themselves never attended an HBCU, but that they had family and friends who had. The participants indicated that the lack of diversity at HBCUs could hinder their ability to interact with other racial and ethnic groups in the global economy once they earned their undergraduate degrees.
A Widespread Misconception
Other authors have highlighted similar sentiments in their writing regarding black students’ perceptions of HBCUs. A 2005 article by T. Elon Dancy published in Black Issues of Higher Education recounted a conversation that he overheard a group of black students having about HBCUs. In their interaction, Dancy wrote, the students spoke negatively about HBCUs for several reasons; chief among them was the perception that HBCUs lacked diversity.
In a monograph I recently released with Rob C. Shorette and Marybeth Gasman, we debunked the perception that HBCUs are not diverse. Marybeth Gasman explained that in some ways, the term “historically black colleges and universities” is a misnomer — many HBCUs, to some extent, have always been diverse. In fact, she noted that as HBCUs were founded, whites were often the first students to attend these institutions. In particular, she explained that at Howard University, the president, General Oliver O. Howard, sent his daughters to the institution along with the daughters of another founder. This means that the first five students were white women.
Read Marybeth Gasman's article about the unique strengths of HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.
Diversity in the Student Body
Although the student population at the majority of HBCUs remains predominantly black, the racial diversity of such institutions have undergone tremendous changes over the years. According to a report by the Center of Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, black students constitute approximately 76 percent of students attending HBCUs. Students from other racial and ethnic groups, on the other hand, comprise the remaining 24 percent. The enrollment at HBCUs is further divided into 13 percent white students, 5 percent students whose race or ethnicity is unknown, 3 percent Latino and Latina students, 1 percent Asian-American students, 1 percent of students who identify as biracial or multiracial, and 1 percent of students classified as undocumented students.
Moreover, some four-year HBCUs, such as Lincoln University of Missouri, West Virginia State University, and Bluefield State College, have a majority enrollment of white students. Additionally, St. Philip’s College, a two-year HBCU, has a majority enrollment of Latino and Latina students, and is recognized federally as a Hispanic-serving institution.
Diversity in the Faculty
The faculty at HBCUs is considerably more diverse than the faculty at predominantly white institutions. For example, data in a recent article in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, which used 2013 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), revealed that 56 percent of full-time faculty members across 99 HBCUs were black, 25 percent were white, 2 percent hispanic and 10 percent Asian. By comparison, on the national level in 2011, 79 percent of full-time faculty were white, 6 percent black, 4 percent hispanic, and 9 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, according to data from the NCES.
Diversity Within the Black Student Community
The diversity at HBCUs also extends beyond racial and ethnic categories. Indeed, like any population, the black population is not monolithic. For example, at HBCUs, like many college campuses, there are black students who are first-generation, international, high-achieving, conservative, liberal, non-traditional, gay, straight, bisexual, and transgender. The intra-group diversity within the black population, which is apparent on HBCU campuses, is multifaceted and represents the words of Shaun R. Harper and Andrew Nichols, who proclaimed, “They are not all the same.”
As illustrated in this article, HBCUs are diverse in many ways. This diversity is another factor that enables such institutions to offer students a quality, world-class educational experience.
Dancy, T. E. (2005). Madness or elitism? African Americans who reject HBCUs. Black Issues in Higher Education, 22(5), 82.
From Matriculation to Engagement on Campus: Delineating the Experiences of Latino/a Students at a Public Historically Black University. Retrieved June 30, 2015, from Wiley
Palmer, R. T., Shorette, R., & Gasman, M. (Eds.) (2015). Exploring Diversity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Implications for Policy and Practice. New Directions for Higher Education.
Palmer, R. T., Maramba, D. C., & Lee, J. M. (2010). Investigating Black students’ disinclination to consider and attend historically Black colleges and universities. National Association of Student Affairs Professionals Journal, 13(1), 23-45.