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Do HBCUs need a makeover?

March 8, 2012

Like many parents around this time, I too have a 17 year-old son who is about to be heading off to college. Since he was in the 9th grade I have been asking him if he would like to attend an HBCU (Historical Black Colleges and University). His answer then, and still remains, “No.” When I ask why, he stated that he doesn’t believe an HBCU will give him a true picture of the real world. He went on to say that the majority of America is not black, and though he has interest in the black progression, he remains adamant that an HBCU won’t prepare him for what’s real out there.

I sat and thought about his comments for quite some time. He is a very intelligent young man with a lot of inherited radicalism in his blood. However, I always encourage my children to run towards their true mission with passion. I tell them that God sent each of us here with an individual purpose that may be totally antithesis to those of even their siblings. So I don’t push him where I “feel” he should go.

Instead, I internalize. I objectively look at his opinions and the facts. The facts are HBCUs have been around for over 100 years and were created to give disenfranchised blacks a place to obtain higher learning that would prepare them for the challenges the state of the country, then, (Jim Crow & Reconstruction) posed. It worked. HBCUs developed some of the most brilliant minds and pumped out some of the most courageous Black Americans and made progressive differences in the black community.

But what about now? Is that still happening? Have they lost their zeal by not following the “Who Moved My Cheese?” mantra? Today, how is a black HBCU graduate any different from a black non-HBCU graduate, mentally, strategically and methodically? What actions are expected to be taken that’s different? I am speculating because I don’t have all the facts. So I humbly ask someone to help me communicate this to my son. Here are some statistics that the United Negro College Fund produced:

Over half of all African American professionals are graduates of HBCUs.
• Nine of the top ten colleges that graduate the most African Americans who go on to earn Ph.D.s are HBCU graduates.
• More than 50% of the nation’s African American public school teachers and 70% of African American dentists earned degrees at HBCUs.
• UNCF members Spelman College and Bennett College produce over half of the nation’s African American female doctorates in all science fields.

However, are these acceptable successes? Is working for government, corporations or becoming professionals who rarely work to elevate current disenfranchised blacks considered a success? 100 years ago, simply being anyone who served in these roles would’ve been seen as inspiration for blacks and acceptably a success. But in the 21st century, other cultures have adapted, the market has changed and our country has developed in ways that seem like night and day compared to the early 20th century so are the designs of our HBCUs serving today’s needs?

Do schools like Spelman University, who was founded by John Rockefeller and named after his wife Spelman have relevance to the Black community or are we being undermined? My son has an interest in becoming an enormously successful entrepreneur who has an impact on the world. Just the mere fact that HBCUs took so long to begin offering online courses made my son feel like these black schools are lagging behind the power curve; though he’s not trying to attend school online but he is just not trying to lag behind too.

Blacks athletes dominate in the NFL and NBA, yet players like Reggie Bush and Dwyane Wade elected not to attend an HBCU. So are they also saying that their chances of success is reduced by attending these schools too? I can only assume that an HBCU should be the mental factory and athletic warehouse for these future professional athletes. Are we not doing a good enough job in our athletic programs, which, by the way, could generate hundreds of millions for athletic departments collectively, recruiting (or at least look appealing) to these students while they are in high school?

Are we too emotionally charged and attached to the schools so we justify the activities rather than demanding innovation? Is it just about job security and historical preservation or is it also about the future preservation of blacks? Are we too sensitive to even have a discussion over where we go wrong for everyone at-large? I root for HBCUs. I appreciate the rich history they provide and the overall progress they’ve made for black people over the past 100 years. But I also feel we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. I write heavily in my book “Rebuilding the Black Infrastructure” that we must be more substantive than we are symbolic. I know this op-ed may ruffle the feathers of some proud HBCU graduates. But at the end of the day, are we here to serve our emotions or serve our community? So help me. What words should I offer to him? Cause I know the longer we delay recognizing our problems, the longer we delay solving them.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2012 12:01 pm

    Those statistics are showing different levels of success for students graduating from HBCU. Success to work in the corporate world and the government. By working in these entities, the money they make will get the government richer by taxing their earned dollars and will allow other corporations they work for to get fatter pockets. Then yes, for the government and corporations this is success.

    If going to a HBCU is teaching their student to be a slave worker, never having their own say because there is always a boss over them, not reaching the max they can make because there will always be a cap on their earnings, then they are not any different than any other Universities. Education is about learning and growing. University credentials should also be about keeping their students updated with any change in the world, economy and preparing them with options to adapt to that change. The economy has changed and HBCU needs to prepare their students for this.

    I remember when I was going to college, teachers will damper my excitement to conquer the world with my own business and encouraged me to settle to work for another designer label. Being an entrepreneur at heart since age 11, of course I didn’t listen to them and pursue my own destiny that my God has for me.

    Yes, HBCU should prepare our brilliant black minds that owning the company is better than working for them. Teach them what the government don’t want them to learn. Allow their talents to help build up black communities and our race. They should stop being the good ol boys and stop doing what the government is please with and teach their students that being successful is more than being a brilliant doctor working in an Hospital. Owning that hospital and servicing our black community is even better. Your son has a great point. Heck, I was thinking this way for a while. Glad you bought it up. Very eye awakening article Professor Devin Robinson.

    • Leroy Glenn Prentice permalink
      March 9, 2012 1:13 pm

      I did not attend a hsbc, sometimes I wish I had. However, I worked with many who did attend hsbcu and they lacked the basic skills to succeed in my place of work. This could be an exception I know, but it has stuck with me. I also visited many hsbcu’s and they were in the ghettos and the facilities could not compare to my school. Although, hsbcu care sbout their students and I faced racism, part of the real world.

    • Sigma5 permalink
      March 9, 2012 5:06 pm

      @ Doren Da…good post.

    • Lisa C. permalink
      March 10, 2012 12:37 pm

      Wow! My sentiments exactly.


  2. Melissa Adams permalink
    March 9, 2012 1:34 pm

    One of my friends went to Clark Atl. The year she was supposed to graduate the board came in and suspended the education department. They didn’t let anyone graduate until the school got it’s act together. She ended up graduating the next year. I thought that was really tacky! Then a friend of mines went to FAMU for his engineering degree. When he got a job at Boeing in Washington State, he was struggling with the adjustment of working with Caucasians. He stayed there for three years but he had a difficult time adjusting. Then one of my former law school classmates graduated from Grambling with honors. She lasted one semester before they kicked her out of law school. When we compete for jobs we are competing with all races. I personally think that the education level at some HBCU schools aren’t up to par.

  3. March 9, 2012 1:52 pm

    I know quite a few of people who have attended a HBCU and are doing quite well. As long as the education given is a quality education nothing else matters. A student is prepared for the real world before they leave home. Colleges and Universities are there to educate you for your academic discipline. I don’t buy and never did buy the thought that just because you go to school with only one race of people it doesn’t prepare you for the real world. Can you work well with a team? Are you humble enough to be teachable? Do you treat other people with respect? Do you have discipline? These are life’s lessons you learn before you go to college, at home and in high school. That’s why it is post-secondary education.

    • March 10, 2012 12:51 am

      Hello Philip Bridges, Question. I understand your thoughts and there is no wrong or right but I have to ask, These HBCU people you know that are doing well, what percentage of the ones you know own their own business? I am not saying that the students from HBCU are not being successful in their field of study/profession but just saying that having the state of mind that they can have more and be able to contribute to our black communities at the same time is better. I agree, life lesson is learn from home. But what kind of lesson are they learning if what they have from home are parents with high school education and no desire to own anything. No desire to overcome obstacles and just settle for less. The main point that I was making is yes HBCU are sending successful professionals out into the world. But when paying hard earn dollars to have someone teach your child how to survive in this world and be successful, they should be getting the best. Would you not agree that being a lawyer at a law firm is good? Wouldn’t you also agree that OWNING that law firm would be more idea of a more successful person? This is the point I am just stating. There could always be more if you want it and know how to get it.

  4. Cody Schrey "Binghi Ghost" permalink
    March 9, 2012 2:08 pm


    I am 34, a graduate of FAMU in tallahassee.

    I recieved a minority scholarship in 1999.

    I am “white.”

    I fully enjoyed my time at an HBCU…at the time FAMU was recognized by harvard for having 2nd-to-none facilities, programs, staff, the whole nine…recv’d official recgonition (which the admin of FAMU flashed on every building & all over campus).

    I was raised in the us virgin islands….st. croix, i believe you have been there on speaking engagements.

    From black parents of black friends of mine who i grew up with…their anti-hbcu sentiment was based on them wanting their children to experience broader horizons as they had just come from highschools which were 98% black (central highschool, complex, st. joes, etc).

    Looking back….after having graduated from FAMU with a degree in Landscape Architecture..i think it would have benefited greatly some of these same friends of mine if they too had gone to an HBCU. Obviously the jobs market is slim to none out there right now but 11 years later i have (and have had) a great job in exactly the field i recv’d my degree in. I keep in touch with a good amount of my FAMU co-grads and for the most part they are all employed, raising families, doing well.

    The HBCU argument is age old and can be both positive or negative. as you know its all about the energy you put into the situation being equal to the energy you get out of it.

    Respect due,

    • March 9, 2012 2:50 pm

      Amen Cody

    • March 10, 2012 1:09 am

      Cody Schrey, I respect your wanting to keep HBCU in the positive and giving credit were credit is due. But not to repeat what I commented behind Philip Bridges, but the point is yes some HBCU are positive and graduating successful people. The point is and you stated it yourself in your comment, “they are all employed”. In an economy like today, black communties could benefit from black business owners that can hire more skilled black people in their community, lower the unemployment rate for those areas and I truly believe lower the crime rate, raise moral amoung black communties and our black race as a whole. This is what we trying to target and if HBCU would just add to their teaching how to be a successful entreprenuer and not work for Uncle Sam, things I mention, could be accomplish. Although there are more benefits that black owned business can bring for the black race I already mentioned. Wouldn’t you think that just going by the ones I mentioned would put a more positive light on black people? That we could learn to grow stronger as a race?

  5. Deborah permalink
    March 9, 2012 2:09 pm

    COMPROMISE- tell him- you still the daddy 🙂 – tell him if he goes to HBCU for the undergrad – you will take care of Harvard or Yale, Princeton, Rutguers…. but when he gets out of Morehouse he might have a change of heart. 🙂

  6. Lloyd Maynard permalink
    March 9, 2012 3:14 pm

    This is an interesting question. I went to an HBCU, Huston-Tillotson in Austin, TX. At the time I was there the school was still recovering from a severe financial scandal and a wayward president who was rumored to be on drugs. Yet I still felt like a got a good education because of the smaller class setting where I would have more one on one time with the professor if I needed it. That’s not a luxury at bigger non-black schools. The University of Texas was right across the highway and I longed to go there but never had the guts to transfer. My HBCU did not have the up to date techonology or resources nor did it teach me how to adjust to working with whites. What it did was provide the wholesome small-scale setting and family environment that I was used to at home. Had I went to UT I wouldnt have that luxury and may have adopted a cold, harsh outlook on life. Although my school didn’t have the clout that UT had, I still got a quality education without sacrificing my morality. I would tell your son that I dont think it really matters if you go to an HBCU or not. It’s all about what you’re looking for in a school, while not compromising your home driven morals, or beliefs. But the HBCU”s do need a lot of help.

  7. March 9, 2012 5:47 pm

    I totally agree with him. Our children don’t always do what we ask. You know in our family we don’t ask our children, we tell them. When Lyniesha first approached me about the Army I was dead set against it. Because she was 17, I refused to sign the papers. I TOLD her to go to college first and MADE her go. That first semester she did absolutely nothing. NOTHING! PASSED NOTHING! End the end I gave in and gave her my blessing to enter the ARMY. Now I couldn”t be prouder. She is doing great, better than I thought possible. So, I think you should just let him do his thing and be there to back him up.

  8. Good Luck Mom permalink
    March 9, 2012 7:32 pm

    Your son is extremely smart. My son goes to an HBCU, and I m ashamed to say that they don’t even provide toilet paper in the bathrooms, and that’s full of crap!

    Ever since my son was a baby I instilled Ga Tech in his brain. However when he got his own mind, he went the other way because he said I think I am white.

    Now another comment. Anything can be changed and the HBCU I am referring to have a new president from an Ivy League Schools. I think one has to stay tune to what he has and will bring to that school, where the dorms rooms are full of mold:)

  9. March 10, 2012 2:44 am

    I’ve left the decision to my children. While Morehouse was what I needed at the time it may not be for my kids. My daughter considered one HBCU, but did not apply. And while I hope my son considers Morehouse and continues the legacy he may not and I’m fine with that. I just want my kids to go to college and graduate; this gives them the best opportunity to succeed. That should be our primary concern. PROUD MOREHOUSE MAN and Army Major.

  10. 'Gru permalink
    March 10, 2012 3:15 pm

    Greetings, Devin, and great post. I’ve been keeping up with your stories for quite some time and my apologies for not responding sooner. In addition, I provided a link to this story in a group I’m associated with on FB (in which I see one of them has responded) in an effort to garnish more thoughts on this subject. Me personally I went to an HBCU, graduated with honors, and have been doing successfully in my career field. And before Doren asks, I’m in the Army and therefore do not focus on business for I’m focusing on closing with and destroying the enemy. However, my HBCU did prepare me for what I am doing and I don’t feel that I was behind or having to play catch up when I attended a non-HBCU and received my Master’s (in which no grade was less than an A-).

    My daughters are both doing very well in school and I have talked with my oldest about college. She is currently in the honors program in the 9th grade and has her eyes set on a couple of colleges. None of them are HBCUs. I may be the fault of that because I don’t talk colleges specific, I just talk about ensuring that you choose a college that will help you achieve your goals. But I did ask her to consider an HBCU in the event that maybe one can help her achieve success. Like many others on here I too have friends that have graduated from HBCUs and are doing well. I also have friends that graduated from non-HBCUs and aren’t doing well or playing catch up. I strongly believe that it falls back on the individual’s responsibility to achieve their own success, and if their priorities are in order as they obtain that education and learn all that they can, they will be successful regardless of the college they received their education.

    I will now go back and cut and paste some of the comments from my FB friends in a separate post.

    • March 11, 2012 1:17 am

      GRU, LOL.
      I rested this already. I do have respect for those that serve our country. My daughter is currently serving her second term in Afghanistan. Many Blessings. LOL

      • 'Gru permalink
        March 11, 2012 4:19 pm

        Thanks for the blessings. On a side note, your picture doesn’t look like you would have someone old enough to be deployed. I pray for her, as well as many others, safe return especially as this war continues to wage on.

  11. 'Gru permalink
    March 10, 2012 3:19 pm

    From D.M.
    Art, good piece. I would say this to the young man as well as my own son:
    – Go to the best school in the world for what you want to do. Not just the best “HBCU”, land grant institution or the best non-HBCU. The wolrd is no longer black or white. It is green. Money is not everything but there is a credential that means something. Bottom line, there are good schools and bad schools; period. I want my kid to go to the best school for what he wants to be. Every parent wants their kid to go to his alma mater- I very proud of my school; an excellent private institution (non-HBCU).
    I have some issue with the stats though. While they are impressive, I wonder what they mean regards to non-HBCUs. Someone who completes his undergrad at an HBCU goes where to get his doctorate, attend medical school or any other advanced degree? How many HBCUs grant those degrees? I honestly do not know the answer to that question. However the simple fact that I am unaware of that means that I am not aware means that others are not as well. So the stats are a little misleading to me.

    From D.S.
    This is not the first time I have seen, heard, or read about how blacks/African Americans feel about attending HBCUs…or our Causasian/white brethen for that matter (yes they do attend HBCUs). My advice to the young man will be based upon my experiences at an HBCU, Winston-Salem State. I double majored in Accounting and Manangement Information Systems and was PUSHED to a limit that I really never thought about achieving/reaching. If being challenged in the mind is a big thing to him, then I know that a lot of HBCUs offer that. Sub-par programs…I think not!!! I will put students at Howard, NC A&T, FAMU, & Southern University against students at Oklahoma State, Auburn, UNC-Chapel Hill, or Univ of Southern Cal. WHY? Because I experienced some of these universities outputs…and the students that attend HBCUs can be JUST as equipped to take on the world just like students from PWIs (Predominately White Institutions) are. I will suggest to him to visit a few HBCUs and do his research thoroughly before making a final decision. I do agree with the parent here with his/her approach to this situation.

    From R.L.J.
    I completed both my BA and my MA at an HBCU (NC Central University). One of the things I noticed almost immediately was that we didn’t have the resources that Duke or UNC students had at their disposal. Nevertheless, our professors demanded the same caliber of work. So, what do you do? You hustle… You find what you need to get the job done and you do it… My HBCU experience taught me that I could do anything I wanted as long as I was resourceful enough to find a way to make it happen. That lesson, along with the education I recieved is priceless… Although I chose to go to the University of Pittsburgh for Law School, I am and always will be, an Eagle…

    From T.O.
    Any higher institution of learner could use a makeover, since educational needs and requirements are forever changing. You have to consider the evolution of the university. Some red flags that come to mind could be dramatic population decrease over a period of time or accreditation issues. Even though I attended the BEST HBCU IN THE WORLD, lol, I would always tell high school students during Open House, “even if you don’t go to NCCU, or an other HBCU, go to college and give it all you got. It will definitely give back to you.”

    From T.B.
    Not only did I attend the GREATEST HBCU on the planet, Howard University, I will advocate for the need for such institutions just as one would advocate for the need for universities like Catholic, Yeshiva, and Brigham Young, Yes, that was a reference to the movie “School Daze”, but it brings home a point. Students should pick schools that best suit their needs, whether that is a HBCU or a PWI. I do not feel as if by me attending Howard it did not prepare me for a world that I’m a minority in. As a matter of fact, that is the goal of most HBCUs, to prepare its students for a world that they are the minority in. As a business major, I left Howard well equipped and prepared to adapt to any situation life would lead me to.

  12. 'Gru permalink
    March 10, 2012 4:07 pm

    From K.L.T.
    I am a Grad of Jackson State University (home of Walter “Sweetness” Payton) member of the SWAC, Jerry Rice MVSU, Steve Mcnair ASU. I have made it my point to study HBCUs for last 30 yrs and I have visited every major HBCUs in the U.S. Do these HBCUs need a makeover? These schools have come a long way since my visits to these school. Some may need improvements and some do not. I feel in the past HBCUs had leadreship issues, lack of funds from the federal/state, and bad reputatuion/news media i.e FAMU issues. HBCUs must compete, for example writing grants and becoming a full blown research institution as oppose to providing just an education. I am not desrepecting your HBCUs, but I am impressed with Howard, Hampton, NC&T, Southern U just to name a few. The reason I’m impress with these HBCUs are Research, producing black engineers/scientists, sports, all branch ROTC departments etc. I feel this gives students more options, scholarships, etc. So, for its worth, this is my input on the subject. out here

  13. 'Gru permalink
    March 10, 2012 4:37 pm

    From D.M. (again – yes he posted twice)
    All colleges are not equal. Like you said you get out of it what you put into it. If you had unlimited resources you would most likely go to the best school you can get accepted to. Some would say HBCUs are second rate, but not all of them are. There are also some second rate PWIs.
    Here is a thought, just bare with me.
    If you go to the “Black West Point” are you better off than the guy who actually went to West Point? Sometimes we do this stuff to ourselves.
    Some folks are ill-prepared for the level in life regardless of where they went to college. Some folks are prepared in spite of where they went college and some are ready because of where they went to college.
    Funny story, I can remember getting funny looks because I did not go to an HBCU. I thought it kind of hilarious. You know how young officers are:
    Me: What’s up man?
    Them: Nothin’
    Me: Where you from?
    Them: Georgia, you?
    Me: NY; what part of GA are you from? Where did you go to school?
    Them: I am from the ATL, but I went to XYZ state- home of the 123 band, you?
    Me: Thanks cool. I am from the Bronx, I went to Syracuse University.
    Them: Oh…..
    At this point the discourse turns into a snobby kind of conversation and I am thinking; “is this person serious?” For a number of reasons:
    1. We are in the same place, 2 snotty nosed LTs
    2. Unless they mentioned a top tier HBCU, I and thinking whatever
    But I may have thought that about alot of PWI- to include West Point.
    3. I got some school pride too. I busted my hump in college double majored, got academic and athletic scholarship money. I was not an honor student in HS but I was pretty good.
    It is kinda of like the greek debate. Which is the best frat or sorority. However, have that conversation at my age. Is kinda ridiculous. So too was this conversation between countless people and myself about HBCU at that point.
    Ironically, my inlaws both went to Winston Salem State, went to grad school at Morgan State. However, they refused to allow their daughter to attend an HBCU. Lucky for me, I met her college!
    Over time I have met people from all over the place from all types of schools and backgrounds they all have something to offer. All schools
    are designed to help you meet the challenges in life. If you feel an institution is not preparing you for life- don’t go there. Don’t give them money for your kids to go there. You are doing them a diservice. Send them to the best school, not the best HBCU or PWI.
    The Orangeman

  14. March 11, 2012 5:18 pm

    As a graduate of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a small HBCU in Maryland, I believe that HBCUs are as institutional to the African American community as the African American church system, and therefore HBCUs are ‘must have’ institutions for the future. HBCUs educate our young men and women, and HBCUs provide African American educators, mentors, and they offer lots of networking possibilities. For instance, most of my professors (at UMES) had PhDs, a majority of them had corporate leadership experience, and most important, all of them made it their mission to professionally develop their students. I surmise that non-HBCU school systems don’t offer as many minority educators, mentors, department leaders, or high ranking school officials. Therefore, I will offer that HBCUs provide invaluable education and real world experiences.

    Unfortunately, some HBCUs carry a percieved stigma of low performance or quality, but the statistics offered in the article refute the stigma, and offer positive outcomes from HBCUs. Here is a quick story, I had a white supervisor tell a group of senior leaders a story that portrayed HBCUs as low quality schools. After he told the story, I reminded him that 2 of his top performing senior leaders attended HBCUs; subsequently, there was a pregnant pause in the room followed by, “I didn’t know…” So, while there are perceptions….the perceptions aren’t reality. The reality is that HBCUs have produced famous African American leaders like MLK, Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Jackson, Art Shell, Tom Joyner ect…..By the way, the movie, “Red Tails” was based on WWII African American pilots that went to Tuskegee University.

    Finally, although some HBCUs don’t recieve all of the high recognition and praise of non-HBCUs, there are a number of HBCUs that offer minority students invaluable education, experiences, mentorship, and networking opportunities.

  15. January 15, 2013 3:02 am

    Hi, this weekend is nice in support of me, for the reason
    that this point in time i am reading this wonderful educational article here at my house.

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