Expert Commentary

White, Hispanic college students at predominantly black institutions, HBCUs

2016 roundup of research that explores the growth in the number of white, Hispanic and Asian students attending the nation's more than 100 HBCUs, or historically black colleges and universities.

In recent years, as the U.S. has increased its focus on the performance of public universities, schools that largely serve black students have faced some of the strongest criticisms. Institutions designated as historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, were created before 1964 with the principal mission of educating black Americans, who had been blocked from other forms of higher education. For various reasons, a number of the country’s 105 HBCUs struggle today with fundraising and building enrollment. Many also have low graduation rates, meaning that the majority of their students do not complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. A 2013 analysis published in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education found that the six-year graduation rate at some HBCUs was as low as 11 percent, on average, and that more than half of the 54 colleges included in the report had six-year graduation rates lower than 34 percent, on average.

Over the past few decades, as more black students began attending predominantly white schools such as state flagship universities and Ivy League colleges, at least some HBCUs have tried to maintain or boost their enrollment by better marketing themselves to students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some HBCUs have seen large increases in white, Hispanic and Asian student enrollment, according to the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2014, Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina became the first HBCU to admit a Latino fraternity. In 2008, Morehouse College in Atlanta graduated its first white valedictorian. The racial composition of a few HBCUs has changed so much that black students no longer make up the majority of their student bodies. For example, at Bluefield State College in West Virginia, 84 percent of students were white in fall 2014. At St. Philip’s College, an HBCU in Texas, 51 percent of students were Hispanic and 29 percent were white in late 2014.

Such trends will be important for journalists writing about HBCUs and higher education more broadly to monitor and understand. Government leaders and policymakers at both the national and state levels surely will continue to debate ways to hold higher education institutions more accountable, and HBCUs will continue to receive considerable scrutiny. While President Barack Obama has reportedly said HBCUs need to “do a better job graduating students and not saddling them with debt,” education advocates generally agree that HBCUs help meet a national need. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said HBCUs produce 27 percent of the African Americans who have bachelors’ degrees in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In 2011, 25 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in education awarded to black students were earned at HBCUs.

Below is a collection of academic research and reports that can provide valuable insights into the changing demographics of HBCUs. Journalists writing about HBCUs will find scholars such as Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, particularly knowledgeable and accessible. Other helpful resources include the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as UNCF, formerly known as the United Negro College Fund. The National Center for Education Statistics provides a wide variety of reports and statistics specific to HBCUs. An older report from the National Center for Education Statistics, titled “The Traditionally Black Institutions of Higher Education 1860 to 1982,” offers details about the early history and evolution of the higher education institutions that were created specifically to serve black college students.


The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Gasman, Marybeth. Report from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and  the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, 2013.

Summary: This report focuses on trends related to students, leadership and fundraising among the country’s 105 historically black colleges and universities. The report finds that the percentage of Latino and Asian students attending HBCUs has risen sharply since 1980 while white enrollment generally has stayed about the same.  At a quarter of HBCUS in the U.S., at least 20 percent of students are not black.


Is It a Different World? Providing a Holistic Understanding of the Experiences and Perceptions of Non-Black Students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Arroyo, Andrew T.;  Palmer, Robert T.; Maramba, Dina C. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, December 2015. doi: 10.1177/1521025115622785.

Abstract: “This qualitative study contributes an original holistic understanding of the perceptions and experiences of non-Black students (e.g., Asian American, Latino, and White) as they matriculate into historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), persist to graduation, and reflect on their experiences as graduates at HBCUs. Findings from this study confirm, challenge, and extend existing research regarding the pre-enrollment experience, institutional experience, and culminating outcomes of non-Black students enrolled in HBCUs. Implications are offered for researchers, practitioners, and current and future non-Black HBCU students.”


Experiences of Latino Male Students Enrolled in Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Allen, Taryn O. Research brief for PROJECT Males at the University of Texas at Austin, August 2015.

Summary: This research brief considers how the learning environments fostered by HBCUs might help bolster academic achievement among Latino men. The author focuses on how different aspects of HBCUs influence a sense of belonging among Latino males.


Racial Microaggressions Among Asian American and Latino/a Students at a Historically Black University
Palmer, Robert T.; Maramba, Dina C. Journal of College Student Development, October 2015, Vol. 56. doi: 10.1353/csd.2015.0076.

Summary: “Research illustrates that the enrollments of Asian American and Latino/a students are increasing at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Nevertheless, research on how these students experience the institutional climates of HBCUs is nonexistent; hence, we sought to explore the college-choice process and perceptions of campus climate for Asian American and Latino/a students at HBCUs. One of the salient themes that emerged from this study was participants’ experiences with racial micro-aggressions at a HBCU. This article discusses those experiences and concludes by providing implications for institutional practice and future research.”


Minority-Serving Institutions and the Education of U.S. Underrepresented Students
John, Ginelle;  Stage, Frances K. New Directions for Institutional Research, June 2014, Vol. 2013. doi: 10.1002/ir.20046.

Abstract: “Numbers of students of color enrolling in higher educational institutions is expected to increase across all racial groups. With continued increases in minority enrollments, minority-serving institutions have and will continue to play a major role in educating student of color. A large national data set was used to examine the numbers of bachelor’s degrees awarded to students by minority-serving institutions, predominantly minority institutions, and predominantly white institutions. The analysis indicates that minority-serving institutions are important producers of students of color who earn bachelor’s degrees.”


Attitudes, Perceptions, and Preferences of Faculty at Hispanic Serving and Predominantly Black Institutions
Hubbard, Steven M.; Stage, Frances K. The Journal of Higher Education, May/June 2009, Vol. 80. doi: 10.1353/jhe.0.0049.

Abstract: “Faculty attitudes toward students and their profession can greatly enhance or diminish outcomes of students and the campus environment. By examining variations in faculty attitudes, opinions about students, and satisfaction with their profession, this study explores differences in learning environments for students attending Hispanic Serving Institutions and Predominantly Black Institutions.”


Keywords: HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities, black colleges, minority students, student demographics, student race

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