HBCUs in Pursuit of Equity

By HBCU Intermediary Equity Team

Between fall 2019 and spring 2020, the Frontier Set Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) intermediary team joined its six institutions—Claflin University, Delaware State University, Fayetteville State University, Jackson State University, Johnson C. Smith University, and Morehouse College—to discuss equity. The topic initially surprised interviewees since HBCUs only exist because Black students were prohibited access to education at predominantly white institutions. This conversation led to a comprehensive exploration of the HBCU perception of equity on their campuses and their actions to remove barriers to student success in college, including poor college preparedness, economic frailty, life circumstances, and racial injustice.

The Second Morrill Act of 1890 was the first legislation requiring “states with racially segregated public higher education systems to provide a land-grant institution for black students whenever a land-grant institution was established and restricted for white students.” (U.S Department of Education, 1991). Although HBCUs established under the act received funding, they did not receive federal land donations. The states were required to educate minorities, but they would not share schools with them. The act increased Black and brown students’ access to higher education and established the “separate but equal” doctrine, which was anything but equal.    

To the early HBCUs, equity meant access to all, irrespective of preparation level. HBCUs still provide access to many students who might not otherwise pursue higher education. For example, Frontier Set HBCU Johnson C. Smith University's (JCSU) Biddle Institute reimagined education for Black students, who often score lower than other racial groups on traditional academic measures such as GPA and standardized test scores (e.g., SAT, ACT). Biddle Institute faculty are trained to address noncognitive and metacognitive skills in educating formerly inadmissible students. To help students think globally, JCSU provides students with passports, offers study-abroad programs, and established the Center for American Culture and Race at Guangdong Baiyun University in China.

HBCUs provide a nurturing, diverse learning environment and customized support services that teach students how to succeed.

Institutions employ diverse and culturally competent individuals who support academic, environmental, and cultural success. When COVID-19 struck, Morehouse College rallied its community to help students manage the isolation of the quarantine. The college initiated “Brotherhood Bonding,” a faculty-moderated bi-weekly Zoom drop-in session intended to recreate the on-campus experience with a forum for plain conversation. Morehouse also hosts Freshman Orientation, a platform to forge broader understandings of human nature. The Freshman Orientations allow students to learn about and engage in subjects including Black feminism, the intersectionality of race and gender, and technology topics, such as computer security.

In response to COVID-19, Claflin University decreased the digital divide through a partnership with Zoom. Fayetteville State is investigating services to address an increase in student mental health issues. Morehouse implemented a calling tree to check on student welfare. The Black Lives Matter movement has Jackson State considering establishing a completely new organization to address social unrest and racial injustice and expand community partnerships. 2020 heralded a new era for Delaware State University (DSU) that propelled the university into state and national recognition as the top provider of professional pilots of color to the airplane industry, and one of two Delaware research universities with Carnegie designation as an R2 university with high research. DSU continues to soar as “the nation's most diverse and unapologetic HBCU.”

Birthed out of necessity, sustained through legacy, and continually growing through innovation, HBCUs are dedicated to increasing student access to higher education and social mobility. By successfully educating underrepresented and underserved students, they continue to pass the HBCU torch in honoring the past, living in the present, and preparing for the future.

The HBCU Equity Team is composed of a diverse team of equity and inclusion professionals engaged in the study of equity on HBCU campuses: Lisa Becker (HBCU Communications/Writer/Editor), Dr. Joe’l Lewis Billingsley (HBCU Team Facilitator, Instructional Designer, Storytelling Team contributor, and Men of Color Workshop Project Lead), Lillian Williams (Assistant Director, Grant Programs/Frontier Set HBCU Intermediary), and Dr. Montrischa Essoka (technical assistance to the HBCU Intermediary Team/Senior Researcher with the American Institutes for Research).