The Secret to the HBCU Sector’s Success: Student Belonging

After decades of neglect, Historically Black Colleges and Universities are now seeing historic levels of interest and funding. Thanks in part to 2020’s racial justice protests, HBCUs are benefitting from record investments from the federal government, major companies, and philanthropists. It’s a long overdue acknowledgment of the outsized roles these institutions play in the success of Black learners.

Despite only making up three percent of U.S. colleges and universities, HBCUs produce nearly 20 percent of all Black graduates. HBCU alumni account for about 80 percent of black judges and half of Black doctors and lawyers. One-quarter of Black undergraduates who earn degrees in STEM hail from HBCUs.

The secret to this success goes beyond the world-class academics and devoted faculty that call HBCUs home, however. At the heart of what makes the HBCU experience so impactful for so many students is the institutions’ unique sense of belonging and community. Research has shown just how important belonging is to student persistence. Indeed, it’s this aspect of HBCUs that has helped them serve as beacons of access and achievement for generations of Black learners. And it’s what cements the important role they can still play today—when equipped with the right resources.  

I have an especially profound understanding of how this sense of belonging contributes to a Black student’s growth and success. I grew up between two educational worlds. My mother was a college professor who frequently taught at HBCUs; I spent many afternoons at HBCU on-campus daycares and in HBCU classrooms doing homework. I went on to graduate from Howard University and attend Meharry Medical College. . But, while HBCUs are in my DNA, I also spent many years learning outside the borders of historically Black campuses attending, and graduating from, predominantly white private schools. 

As for many students of color, navigating others’ perceptions of me, my intellect, and my worth in predominantly white spaces was draining — and this very dynamic was no longer an issue at HBCUs, as they are a utopian rarity in American culture.On HBCU campuses, I was not judged nor was my aptitude constantly questioned. I was welcomed wholeheartedly, receiving affirmation and encouragement to pursue my most ambitious goals and dreams at every turn. This is the HBCU difference. It’s an environment that allows Black learners to focus first and foremost on their learning and growth. HBCUs are now looking to build upon these strengths to better meet the demands of today’s workforce and economy. They shouldn’t have to do it alone. 

The flood of recent interest and funding must serve as only the beginning of a new chapter for HBCUs. More support is needed so that HBCUs can ensure their long-standing relational strengths can be brought to scale to meet the needs of today’s students. This means not only providing HBCUs with more funding but doing so in a way that helps them build the capacity necessary to better serve students in ways only they can.

Earlier this year, for example, UNCF announced a four-year initiative with InsideTrack aimed at scaling one-on-one success coaching at HBCUs across the country. The goal is to provide coaching to 10,000 prospective students, 4,000 first-year students, and 3,000 learners who stopped out before finishing their degrees. The initiative began last year, with a one-year pilot program that focused on re-enrolling former students who attended HBCUs and Predominantly Black Institutions. So far, the project has helped nearly 400 students return to school and formulate a plan to stay on track to a degree. 

To unlock the full potential of HBCUs, we must also recognize that these institutions are not monolithic—and that Black colleges and universities themselves are diverse in size, sector, academic specialties, and the types of degrees they offer. 

To that end, Complete College America is partnering with about two dozen Historically Black Community Colleges and Predominantly Black Community Colleges to help identify and create new educational pathways tailed to the specific needs of Black adult learners. A major part of the initiative is focused on building a comprehensive network  of PBCCs and HBCCs so they can share expertise and resources across all institutions. The aim is to build much-needed infrastructure and internal capacity while fostering greater awareness of the critical role that Black community colleges play. 

The sense of community and belonging that HBCUs provide determined the trajectory of my life, setting me on a course toward a rewarding career, but not every Black learner is so fortunate. We must begin to address the oppressive inequities and the legacy of systemic racism that has for too long disadvantaged HBCUs and Black learners. Making good on the promise of the HBCU experience requires us to remove the artificial constraints that have for too long held them back. 

To ensure this moment of renewed interest translates to a lasting impact for HBCUs, we must focus on building their character. Only then can HBCUs rise to the challenges of today’s economy while preserving the unique sense of belonging and community that have made their campuses a haven for Black learners for nearly two centuries. 

Malika Clinkscales is the Associate Vice President at InsideTrack.