Four Reasons Why 2020 Was The Year Of The HBCU

Much of higher education’s 2020 news ranged from the discouraging to the alarming - a raging pandemic, sinking enrollments, decimated budgets, unhappy students, exhausted faculty and administrators, and a growing public disillusionment about the value of college.

Against this backdrop, however, one higher education sector attracted renewed interest amid signs of a welcomed renaissance. Indeed, 2020 was a banner year for America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the approximately 100 public and private institutions established primarily to serve the African American community. 

According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, an HBCU is: “…any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation.” 

HBCUs pave a broad avenue of access to postsecondary education, and not only for Black students. They also serve a significant proportion of first-generation students and those from low-income families. And they’ve become an increasingly popular destination for international students.

According to the American Council on Education, while HBCUs represent just 3% of institutions eligible for federal student financial aid, they award 17% of all bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students. With an overall enrollment of about 300,000, HBCUs also play a major role in graduating Black students with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. 

HBCUs have long battled strong headwinds. They are chronically underfunded compared to other public institutions. Their endowments are smaller than most private schools. And like many colleges, they are grappling with declining enrollments. Because most HBCUs are small, they typically have little cushion to absorb decreased revenue.

But 2020 saw HBCUs receive increasing and much-deserved support. Policy makers paid more attention to their missions, social issues raised awareness about their importance, noteworthy alums captured national headlines, and several historical firsts were achieved.

Here are four reasons why 2020 will be remembered as a noteworthy year for HBCUs.

The Presidential Election

One indication of HBCUs’ renaissance was the attention they garnered from presidential candidates, particularly among the Democrat contenders. All of the most prominent Democrats seeking their party’s nomination - Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren - proposed substantial funding boosts for HBCUs as part of their educational platforms.

Even Donald Trump, whose advocacy for HBCUs appeared largely symbolic, via Executive Orders and proclamations, offered some support. Late in 2019 he signed the Futures Act, a rare triumph of congressional bipartisanship that permanently provided more than $250 million annually to the nation’s HBCUs along with other institutions serving large numbers of minority students.

Joe Biden has pledged he will invest significantly in HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions and has publicized plans for spending more than $70 billion on various initiatives at these schools.

The Racial Justice Movement

The killing of George Floyd and several other Black citizens at the hands of the police led to demonstrations by millions of Americans throughout the summer. In fact, the various marches and demonstrations may have been the largest protest movement in the country’s history.

Much of that activity was inspired by Black Lives Matter (BLM), which recently has seen a resurgence in public support. College athletes picked up the BLM mantle and began speaking out against racial injustice and police brutality.

Following the athletes’ lead, more college students got off the sidelines and joined the action. They aimed their anger at convenient campus targets. Whether it was Princeton removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school, Washington and Lee faculty voting to drop Lee from the university’s name, or tearing down Confederate symbols at the University of Mississippi, colleges and universities found a sudden willingness to distance themselves from relics of a racist past.

The dramatic increase in racial awareness is anticipated to usher in a “Floyd Effect,” an increase in applications to HBCUs by Black students who want the safety and security they feel is missing at many predominantly white universities. It’s something akin to the “Missouri Effect,” the uptick in applicants to HBCUs that followed racial tensions at the University of Missouri several years ago.

Greater awareness of racial injustices and the importance of increasing educational opportunities for Black Americans also led to new interest by wealthy Americans in HBCUs and other colleges serving large numbers of first-generation, minority, and low-income students.

A Record-Shattering Year of Private Gifts

Dozens of HBCUs received multi-million-dollar donations in 2020, taking some of the spotlight away from the elite colleges that typically garner most of higher education’s mega-gifts.

Leading the list were MacKenzie Scott’s two tranches of donations to hundreds of organizations, totaling about six billion dollars. HBCUs received over $500 million from Ms. Scott, largely unrestricted in nature, with most of the individual gifts in the $15 to $50 million range.

But Ms. Scott’s gifts were not the end.

  • Reed Hastings, co-founder of Netflix, and his wife, Patty Quillin, announced in June they were donating a total of $120 million - $40 million each to the United Negro College Fund, Spelman College and Morehouse College.
  • In September, IBM announced it was establishing a quantum education and research initiative for HBCUs. The IBM-HBCU Quantum Center is a multi-year investment focused on physics, engineering, mathematics, computer science, and other STEM fields at 13 HBCUs. IBM also invested $100 million in technology, assets, resources and skills development for several other HBCUs through the IBM Skills Academy Academic Initiative.
  • Also in September, Michael R. Bloomberg announced his foundation would donate $100 million to four historically Black medical schools, in an attempt to improve the health and wealth of Black communities. The gift will benefit about 800 medical students at the Charles R. Drew University of Science and Medicine; Howard University College of Medicine; Meharry Medical College; and Morehouse School of Medicine.
  • Tik Tok, the social media platform, announced in December it was donating $10 million to 10 academic institutions serving underrepresented students with programs focused on public health and professions in the medical and healthcare fields. The majority of the institutions were HBCUs. Each school will receive $1 million in scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing medical careers or other health related fields. 

A Year 0f Historical Firsts

Several HBCUs achieved new milestones this year. Start with the obvious fact that a number of the year’s major political figures were HBCU alums.

  • Kamala Harris became the first woman of color and the first HBCU alum (Howard University) to be elected Vice President of the United States.
  • Stacy Abrams, credited with helping turn Georgia blue in this year’s presidential election, attended Spelman College.
  • Michael Regan, Joe Biden’s pick to lead the EPA, graduated from North Carolina A and T.
  • Raphael Warnock, the Democrat candidate for one of the closely watched senate races in Georgia, is a graduate of Morehouse College.
  • President-Elect Joe Biden picked Tony Allen, President of Delaware State University, to be CEO of his Presidential Inaugural Committee. Allen had previously served in the 1990s as a special assistant and speechwriter for then U.S. Senator Biden.

HBCUs took major strides in STEM education in 2020.

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) established the HBCU STEM Undergraduate Success Research Center (STEM-US), aimed at learning how HBCUs can foster more STEM graduates and STEM doctorates. It was supported by a $9 million grant to Morehouse College, Spelman College and Virginia State University.
  • Six HBCUs - Bowie State University, Alabama A&M University, Florida A&M University, Johnson C. Smith University, Morehouse College and Norfolk State University - received a grant from the NSF South Big Data Hub to establish a consortium of data science faculty, researchers and industry partners.
  • Seventeen HBCUs received $3.9 million from the Department of Education's Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program (MSEIP) to increase the number of minority graduates in STEM fields.

Other firsts:

  • In July, Delaware State University announced its intent to acquire Wesley College, a small, private college in Dover, Delaware. When finalized, it will mark the first time in history that an HBCU has acquired another college.
  • Lincoln University (Missouri) became the first HBCU to host a police training academy.

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HBCUs were by no means immune to the travails of 2020. The pandemic increased their financial struggles, and it hit communities of color particularly hard. However, collectively HBCUs earned a much higher profile on the higher education landscape. Their presidents demonstrated steady leadership during the pandemic, the accompanying economic troubles, and multiple episodes of racial turmoil. Their alumni, missions and academic programs attracted record philanthropy. And now they stand poised to become an even greater national asset with a new administration in Washington, D.C. that’s committed to their purpose and possibilities.

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https://forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2021/01/02/four-reasons-why-2020-was-the-year-of-the-hbcu/?sh=45033d8f14f5


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