Are HBCUs Still Necessary?

Before desegregation in the nation's educational system, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were the only way that most African Americans could receive college degrees. Forty-nine years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education and 30 plus years after several landmark civil rights resolutions opened predominantly white institutions (PWIs) to African Americans, we must ask ourselves some vital questions. Are minority students better served by an undergraduate education at one of the HBCUs or have these institutions outlived their usefulness? Do they provide a value that PWIs do not?

The existence of HBCUs has been threatened in recent years. In 1992, in U.S. v. Fordice, the Supreme Court required states to "educationally justify or eliminate" HBCUs. The ruling classified HBCUs as a holdover of segregation and forced public HBCUs to offer educational experiences unlike equivalent PWIs and integrate more white students, while private HBCUs had to do the latter or relinquish essential federal funding.

HBCUs Make Contributions in Science, Engineering

We must not forget that HBCUs have greatly contributed to the nation's workforce by producing a multitude of notable graduates. According to the Research Policy Information Center's 1999 study, "Students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Their Aspirations and Accomplishments," HBCUs accounted for only 4% of all 4-year U.S. colleges and universities and 21% of all African-American collegians, but awarded 28% of all baccalaureate degrees to African Americans. When considering degrees in science and engineering, this percentage jumped to 31%. This same study cited three reasons that African Americans continue to attend HBCUs:

1) Significantly lower cost of living, tuition, and more generous financial aid packages.

2) Higher retention rates.

3) More likely to enter a program in sciences, engineering, and business.

To definitively answer the question of whether HBCUs or PWIs better benefit minority science students, a well-funded, long-term study should be performed. In the meantime, several smaller studies shed some light on the controversy. A 1997 Appalachia Education Laboratory study, "A Comparison of African American Science Majors Attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Majority White Institutions" (, demonstrated that African Americans attending PWIs were more likely to have taken upper-level math and science classes and advanced placement courses in high school than their HBCU counterparts. Also, those attending PWIs tended to have higher grades in math and on average scored 75 points higher on the scholastic achievement test. According to these data, PWIs recruited more highly prepared students than did HBCUs. These differences in scholastic achievement may be attributed to other discrepancies such as the general higher socioeconomic standing of African Americans attending PWIs than those attending HBCUs.

On the other hand, the 1996 study "Historically Black Colleges and Universities: 1976 to 1994" pointed out the many advantages HBCUs offer. African Americans at HBCUs were more likely to major in the sciences, engineering, and business than those attending PWIs. HBCU students also spent less time matriculating than those at PWIs and were more likely to receive their baccalaureate degree. This trend continued into graduate school as a higher percentage of HBCU graduates received their Ph.D. or terminal master's degree than PWI graduates.

Are HBCUs Inferior or Just Underfunded?

A major criticism of HBCUs is that they are academically inferior to PWIs. In an interview with Insight magazine (30 August 1999), George Washington University economist Walter Williams said, "One of the problems with black universities is that, in general, they don't have the academic standing and rigors of predominantly white schools." Many would argue that this statement unfairly portrays HBCUs as second-class institutions, but there are other underlying issues that must be brought to light. Howard University professor of chemistry Vernon Morris disputes Williams by saying, "The level of expectation for African-American students at HBCUs is 'typically high' while expectations at PWIs are 'typically low.' " Dr. Morris feels that African-American students can achieve regardless of the surroundings. He states, "After all, most HBCU faculty earned their degrees at PWIs--and prestigious ones at that!"

In addition, others note the disparity of resources available to HBCUs as a source of inequity. From 1976 to 1988, government expenditure increases for HBCUs was 5.2% less than that for PWIs, according to "Historically Black Colleges and Universities: 1976 to 1994." However, HBCUs continue to do a lot with what they have. George Washington psychology professor Sherry Molock stated, "HBCUs are more willing to take a chance on the 'diamonds in the rough' students. I personally spent a lot more time there working with and meeting students directly." Luckily for the nation, it is paying off.

HBCUs have been a powerful force in helping African-American students in the sciences. Ultimately, the choice to attend a PWI or an HBCU for an undergraduate degree is a personal decision and depends upon the individual. However, some of the opinions and data revealed in this article show that HBCUs are still a valid factor in American higher education and should be maintained.

Clinton Parks is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and can be reached at

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