“What makes an HBCU an HBCU is the history, is the culture, is most of the professors being Black and all of the professors being driven by the intent of educating and uplifting Black people,” remarked Nailah Barnes. Barnes is the first-year class president of Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta. In recent years, the make-up and culture of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) has shifted as more white students have enrolled at these schools. This shift raises a myriad of questions: What happens when there are fewer Black students and more white students in these spaces? How does a teacher balance educating the white student about Black culture and history, while focusing on the empowerment of the Black student? Which minority in an HBCU is more vulnerable, the Black student or the small number of white students?
The fact is, HBCUs look different than they did a couple of decades ago. Since the beginning of President Trump’s presidency, there has been an influx in both the number of white and Black youth enrolling in HBCUs. This phenomenon, dubbed the ‘Trump bump,” has been sparked by the ever-growing threat of gun violence, police brutality, mass incarceration, and hate crimes towards marginalized people during and after Trump’s presidential election. In a world that feels more unstable and polarized, college-aged students are drawn to spaces like HBCUs or women’s colleges where social activism is a central aspect of the college experience. Specifically, HBCUs remain safe havens for Black youth who want to connect with similar students and mobilize as activists against issues threatening the safety and progress of their communities.
Today, nationwide, one in four HBCU students does not identify as Black. A few historic HBCUs such as Bluefield State College and West Virginia State University are now over 90 percent non-Black, with a majority of the student population identifying as white.
The extreme transformation of schools such as Bluefield State complicates the original objectives of HBCUs as places of safety and opportunity dedicated to Black students. Originally, HBCUs were the only higher education institutions to admit freed Blacks after the Civil War. Many private HBCUs, such as Howard University, were funded by white, Northern religious groups in an effort to train the newly emancipated for entry into the workforce. On the other hand, in the South, HBCUs were created to maintain segregation in the education system. Regardless, these institutions flourished into centers of Black success and pride, attracting 80 percent of all Black college students in the 1960s. HBCUs are known for producing generations of Black leaders—Martin Luther King (Morehouse College), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University), and Toni Morrison (Howard University)—yet now they educate only 10 percent of Black college-age students.
One major reason for this decline is the dwindling financial support for HBCUs, sometimes coupled with high-profile scandals. Last year, social media erupted with the story of Tyrone Hankerson Jr., a law student and student employee at Howard University who allegedly scammed the school out of almost half a million dollars. Bewilderment turned into rage as Howard students cultivated HU Resist, a group that rallied for pressing financial issues such as guaranteed housing and fewer tuition surges. This year, Bennett College, a historically Black women’s college in North Carolina, attracted media attention as it sought to raise millions of dollars to reclaim its accreditation. Two years prior, Bennett College was put on probation due to its financial woes. The accreditation process further halted federal funding to the school. Unfortunately, these issues are becoming more common, resulting in more than a dozen HBCU closures since 1930.
Tight funding may be one reason for this demographic shift in HBCUs. Small endowments and decreased federal funding contribute to lower enrollment from Black students who often depend on large financial aid packages. Instead, HBCUs have tried to stay afloat and support low-income students by enrolling a larger number of high-income students who can pay the full tuition, who are often not Black. Unlike PWIs (predominantly white institutions) that often receive large donations from benefactors, HBCUs were founded with smaller endowments and may lose federal funding if they have unstable financial situations.
Though there are clear financial incentives for HBCUs to enroll more white students, there’s an ongoing debate as to what has attracted non-Black, particularly white, students to apply to these institutions. Many white HBCU students have cited these schools’ inspiring histories and welcoming environments as pulling factors. Tiago Rachelson, a white student at Morehouse College, credited his choice to a guidance counselor who described his time at Morehouse as a “transformative experience.” Students often attribute their positive HBCU experiences to these schools’ efforts to educate them about Black culture and reduce biases. It is important to recognize, however, that attending an HBCU does not and cannot summarize the entire Black experience. Nor can it excuse a white person from further educating themselves on Black culture and acknowledging their role in perpetuating discrimination.
Although it is important to educate white people on Black culture, some scholars question whether an HBCU is the appropriate space to do so. Stephen Crockett Jr. of The Washington Post offered an intriguing probe into the presence of white students in HBCUs: “Is attending an HBCU for white students the equivalent of spending a summer in Ghana?” He further adds, “Let’s face it; the white student who would even consider attending an HBCU is not the student who is need of a strong dose of Black cultural awareness because they already have it.” Crockett suggests a kind of white spectatorship and voyeurism that can be damaging to Black students.
While white students may not intend to do damage, intentions do not outweigh impact. A white student at a historically all-Black college—created because there were few other institutions that would educate Black people—can be a peculiar presence. For Black students, the presence of white students in HBCUs can feel like an infringement on a space created specifically for Black people in a white-dominated world. It could become a parasitic relationship: White students benefit from the cheaper and holistically enriching education, while Black students feel unvalued and displaced.
Yet, Crockett’s comment that a white student willing to go to an HBCU is more aware of racism simplifies how knowledge manifests. There is an immense difference between learning about the cruelties of slavery from textbooks and hearing a Black student’s narrative about their encounters with the justice system or microaggressions. White people can often understand racism at a distance, but allowing them to attend HBCUs gives them a chance to develop meaningful personal relationships with Black students; these bonds highlight disparities and realities that many white students would not have otherwise been aware of. If a white student encourages and maintains the original goals of HBCUs in order to inspire and shape a successful Black generation, HBCUs should allow them to attend.
The recent influx of white students at HBCUs poses questions that do not yet have clear answers. Is it up to Black students in HBCUs to further reallocate safe spaces in a space that was made to be safe? Since identity is intersectional, should students depend on smaller, specific safe spaces within HBCUs for Black women, queer Black students, or low-income Black students? And how can the curriculum at HBCUs be inclusive of all aspects of Black life and identity? Perhaps the increased enrollment of students impacted by the social climate can push HBCUs to extend care and acceptance to all of the oppressed identities of the African diaspora. HBCUs will continue to attract students of all backgrounds and will become more racially diverse due to financial needs and social changes, but one thing is clear: HBCUs should continue to center around the Black experience and cater their curriculum, culture, and rhetoric toward the empowerment of Black people.
Photo: Open Book