With money pouring into some coffers, applications surging, and alums relentlessly shouting out their alma maters all over social media, HBCUs appear to be having a moment. While they were always revered in the Black community, HBCUs are seeing a greater level of interest, focus, and investment from the mainstream as well.
“After last year’s pandemic and racial reckoning, the importance of supporting HBCUs has been reiterated,” says Harry L. Williams, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents public HBCUs. “We continue to be recognized for supplying leaders to the nation for nearly 200 years.”
Vice President Kamala Harris is undoubtedly the highest-profile example of that leadership in recent memory, launching her presidential run from Howard University, her beloved alma mater. Throughout her campaign, Vice President Harris credited Howard for its role in her success, dispelling an age-old myth that an HBCU degree won’t get you to the world’s biggest stage.
Howard continued to tout its prominence in 2021, with several key recognitions of its celebrity alumni. Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates joined the faculty. Actress Phylicia Rashad was named dean of the recently reestablished College of Fine Arts. Along with Netflix, Howard announced a $5.4 million scholarship to honor late actor and alumnus Chadwick Boseman.
A growing number of Black students remain laser-focused on attending an HBCU. Eddie Moore, a high school senior from North Haven, Conn., has targeted “a laundry list” of HCBUs up and down the eastern seaboard, says his mother, Thais. After years of Eddie being the only Black student in his class and friend group, the Moores are eager for him to have a different experience. “He’s been dealing with this since kindergarten,” says Thais. “He needs to be in classes with people who look like him, where he doesn’t have to explain.”
Thais, a graduate of University of Connecticut who had never considered attending an HBCU herself, has also accepted the literal cost of attending an HBCU. “I expect that I might not get as much scholarship money [from an HBCU], and I’m totally fine with it,” she says.
While donations appear to be pouring into HBCUs, the largesse can be misleading. Although philanthropist Mackenzie Bezos donated $560 million to 23 public and private historically Black colleges and universities last year, dozens of others remain severely underfunded. The so-called “Black Ivies,” which include Howard, Spelman College, and Morehouse College, have significantly more resources than most, enabling them to draw accomplished faculty and top students.
The government might not be of much help this year, with the Biden administration potentially reducing federal funding of HBCUs from $45 billion to $2 billion due to Democratic infighting, the AP reported. Still, Dr. Williams of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund hopes renewed interest in HBCUs will be a game-changer.
“Imagine how much we could accomplish with the proper support,” he says. “If this attention from philanthropists and large corporations could be sustained—and increased—HBCUs could help to unlock not just more advancement for Black Americans, but strong economic performance for the U.S.”