HBCUs and Student Success Beyond the Degree
Juneteenth is an annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War. This is a holiday that has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s but most recently became a federal holiday.
To understand Juneteenth is to also understand HBCUs and their existence. Juneteenth is celebrated with the end of slavery, but there was also another freeing which was the creation of HBCUs, or Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In this creation, HBCUs became a crucial first step for freed African Americans in getting an education to becoming self-sufficient.
HBCUs are foundations of African American history and culture where Black students become meaningfully changed by the experience. Despite institutional disadvantages such as getting jilted in funding for over 150 years or suffering in the rankings through their preference of serving their missions (or the lack of operational excellence many of them fall victim to), HBCUs are producing graduates who are more likely to pursue an advanced degree and more likely to aspire higher in their careers, ultimately giving back more to their communities than their peers who attend PWIs (Primarily White Institutions). HBCUs are largely open-access institutions, assuming institutional responsibility for each student’s academic and holistic success.
Arroyo and Gasman proposed, in their 2014 work, a framework for Black student success which could be applied to all institutions, highlighting the differences in experience and outcomes a Black student receives at an HBCU vs a PWI. The framework highlights the concentration of the HBCU on two fundamental elements which seem to produce not only academic success, but a rounded and holistic success: Identity formation, inclusive of racial and ethnic, intellectual, and leadership ideologies; as well as a strong focus on values cultivation, inclusive of Black tradition, social justice, and conservatism.
The HBCU’s immersive and supportive environment, familial in many cases, is a place where the Black student can come into themselves and begin separating from negative stereotypes and the stresses of racism. The immersive environment allows for race to almost disappear, sometimes for the first time, allowing students to focus on positive development in a supportive environment. Here, they are also surrounded by mentors and leaders who look like them and are encouraged into multiple leadership roles throughout their time attending the HBCU.
In my study conducted in 2021 where I interviewed ten Black male traditional graduates of HBCUs as to their perceptions of the contributors for their sense of racial identity and agency, the narrative supported Arroyo and Gasman’s model. One of the interviewees shared about his first impressions arriving at his HBCU, “It made me—it made me feel like it was okay to be—to be great” (Floyd, 2021). He went on to share how this was the first time in his life where he felt like it was okay to be his best, to try his hardest, and where his greatness was expected by everyone around him.
Each of the gentlemen in the study talked of similar experiences, where they had a tremendous sense of belonging, often for the first time, feeling valued for more than their bodies or their athletic ability, where they were involved in leadership, where they learned deeply about African and African American history in ways they had never been exposed to before in traditional public education. They learned to be proud of their racial and ethnic heritage in ways they had not before and were instilled with a responsibility to uplift their community upon their departure from the institution. Many HBCUs invite influential figures, alumni, government officials, and executives back to campus on a regular basis to help expose the current students to their potential future and to build the network.
HBCUs are African American foundations of higher learning where communities are remarkably changed, where students are embraced, and where they graduate markedly different from how they arrived. As part of their responsibility to each other and their community, alumni often stay very involved in the university community, coming back to campus for homecoming, and serving as mentors for future students so that the next generation has a great set of mentors waiting to lift them up.
Arroyo, A. T., & Gasman, M. (2014). An HBCU-based educational approach for Black college student success: Toward a framework with implications for all institutions. American Journal of Education, 121(1), 57–85. https://doi.org/10.1086/678112
Floyd, J. (2021). Exploring the Contributors to the Sense of Agency and Racial Identity for Black Male Traditional Graduates of HBCUs. Lamar University.