Earlier this year, South Carolina State University became a national topic of conversation. PBS, NPR, and the New York Times each ran stories documenting the school’s financial woes and the resulting tumult. The South Carolina House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Higher Education proposed to shut down the state’s only publicly supported historically black university because the school was in debt to the tune of $11 million.
The university’s trustees voted to place the school’s president on administrative leave, alumni protested, and ultimately, South Carolina legislators did not close the school.
The fact that casual observers mostly hear about historically black colleges and universities in moments of crises adds fuel to the fire of those that wonder “Are black colleges still necessary?” More than any other, this is the question I was asked as I researched, discussed, and wrote about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
A consequence of living in a multi-cultural society that purports to value diversity is that we are suspicious of black colleges. At a fundamental level, the question, “Are black colleges still necessary?” implies that it is easy to identify the value in some colleges – those that are predominantly white – but not those that are predominantly black.
HBCUs play a critical role in the production of highly educated, successful black Americans. Though they account for a relatively small proportion (3%) of U.S. colleges and universities, roughly 40 percent of blacks earning science, technology, engineering, and math degrees do so at black colleges. Eighty-five percent of black medical doctors attend a black college at some point in their educational career. Forty percent of black doctoral degree holders earned their bachelor’s degree at a black college. These statistics beg the question of why it is so difficult to conceive of HBCUs as prestigious entities worthy of the same level of respect and accord we so easily dole out to so called “mainstream” or predominantly white colleges.