According to recent reports, enrollment at the Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) is a on a steady decline. Despite a rise in overall attendance, the number of college eligible Black students who attend HBCUs has dropped from 18.4 percent to 12.9 percent over the past thirty years. Between 1995 and 2004, 26 of the 87 Black schools profiled by the United States Education Department experienced declines in enrollment. While many experts correctly attribute this drop in enrollment to â€œaging campuses,â€ there are a host of other critical issues that must be considered when discussing the current state of HBCUs.
One of the biggest issues surrounding the HBCU attendance drop is expanding opportunity. Beginning with the 1960s cohort of Affirmative Action students, large numbers of Black students were able to bypass the HBCU and matriculate directly into the White mainstream. Whereas scholars like Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates were able to enroll as undergraduates at Harvard and Yale University, their intellectual heroes and mentors had no such luxury. W.E.B. Dubois had to attend Fisk before obtaining a Ph.D. at Harvard; Martin Luther King, Jr. followed in his fatherâ€™s Morehouse footsteps before going to Boston College; Martin Kilson went to Lincoln University before receiving his doctorate at Harvard. More than ever before, Black Americaâ€™s best and brightest do not have to attend HBCUs as undergraduates before obtaining advanced degrees from elite, predominately White institutions.
In addition to expanding scholastic opportunities, HBCUs do not play the same role in Black public life as they did in previous decades. Although the highly commodified Black cultural nationalism of the early 1990s, as well as the hit television show â€œA Different World,â€ created a mini-renascence of HBCU love, there has been a growing indifference to HBCUs within the Black community. Whereas previous generations saw an HBCU degree as a badge of honor and community solidarity, many of todayâ€™s students and parents see the Black college as a secondary or tertiary alternative to Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges. While this is partly due to the ever-expanding bourgeoisie sensibilities of the Black middle class, it is also directly connected to the increased corporatization of higher education. Within the cultural logic of the neo-liberal marketplace, where formal education is reduced to a tradable commodity, HBCUs are viewed as inferior products.
Another factor in the decline of the HBCU is its strict cultural conservatism. Unlike their historically White counterparts, many Black institutions continue to impose conservative policies and practices that, in the minds of many students, have exhausted their utility such as mandatory chapel service. Additionally, many HBCUs tacitly reaffirm problematic ideologies that cause material damage to its students. One of the most disturbing examples of this emerged in 2003, when Morehouse Collegeâ€™s unofficial â€œdonâ€™t ask donâ€™t tellâ€ policy about sexual identity, fueled by years of Christian fundamentalism and homphobia, contributed to the vicious beating of Gregory Love, a gay student who was attacked for allegedly looking at another student in the bathroom.
Perhaps the most disappointing factor is that many HBCUs have failed to remain on the cutting edge of intellectual production. In the early part of the 20th century, schools like Howard University housed brilliant minds such as Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche. This is not to say that HBCUs do not produce and provide brilliant intellectual leadership. On the contrary, prominent intellectuals from William Jelani Cobb to Wade Boykin to Beverly Guy-Sheftall operate from inside the Ebony tower. Still, the current structure of the university prioritizes teaching and university service over original research. As such, most of the countryâ€™s leading scholars elect to work at prominent research institutions, where they can teach two classes and produce new scholarship, instead of teaching four classes per semester at the HBCU.
Also, the conservative ethos of the HBCU has led to an ironic resistance to many of the most interesting, provocative, and transformative intellectual fields that have emerged in the past four decades. For example, many HBCUs still do not have African American Studies(!), Womenâ€™s Studies, or Queer Studies departments. The absence of such intellectually vibrant spaces inevitably forces many scholars, whose training was largely informed by these disciplines, to remain in White institutions.
To be certain, the declining significance of the HBCU is a tragedy for the Black community. In addition to being a historical signpost of highbrow Black intellection, the HBCU must play a vital role in creating a self-sustaining Black community in the future. In order to do this, however, we must acknowledge these issues and work to change them.