Higher Education

Can historically black colleges serve mostly white students?

When junior Brandon Kirby brought home an award from a national biomedical conference, it was a nice boost for his college, West Virginia’s Bluefield State, set in a dying coal town in the heart of Appalachia.

It also seemed incongruous, given that the conference was for minorities, the college is historically black — and Kirby is white.

So are 82 percent of the students at Bluefield State, which nonetheless qualifies along with other historically black colleges and universities — they’re abbreviated HBCUs — for a share of the more than a quarter of a billion dollars in special funding the federal governmentset aside for those institutions in 2011, the last year for which the figure is available.

The schools can also apply for federal loans through the Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program. Last year, they got $303 million from the program, on top of $1.1 billion in previously approved loans.

The HBCU designation was established in 1965 for any accredited school “established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.”

But while they have always enrolled students of all races, HBCUs are becoming less black. On average, one in four of their students is of a race other than black, according to research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

At a handful, like Bluefield, blacks now comprise only half of enrollment, or less. At Alabama’s Gadsden State Community College, which is also historically black, 71 percent of the students today are white and 21 percent are black. So are half the students at Lincoln University in Missouri, while 40 percent are black. The enrollment at St. Philip’s College in Texas is half Hispanic and 13 percent black, according to 2011 enrollment data from the U.S. Department of Education.

But George Cooper, the executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, says such wild demographic swings merely serve as examples of the modern-day flexibility of HBCUs. These schools still are, and always will be, legally considered historically black, he said.

“The definition is a federal definition,” Cooper said. “They’re living up to it.”

Congress has never stipulated whether an institution could continue to be considered historically black if it became, in fact, mostly white. The legislation that gives the schools their largest pool of money says only that they have “contributed significantly to the effort to attain equal opportunity through postsecondary education for black, low-income, and educationally disadvantaged Americans.”

But funding for once-black institutions should be based on their present realities, not past status, just as it is for any other university or college, said economist Richard Vedder, who has argued that HBCUs should no longer get any special funding.

“If you’re going to give subsidies for institutions, you shouldn’t give it on the basis of some sort of historical [status],” said Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

At Bluefield, officials and students contend they haven’t strayed from their original mission for the same reason Kirby and his classmates are allowed to participate in the biomedical conference.

“We’re all considered minorities because we’re in a poverty state,” Kirby said.

The university primarily draws rural students from Appalachia, many of them low income and the first in their families to attend college. “The students that we serve would not necessarily have other options for higher education,” Bluefield State President Marsha Krotseng said.

The schools, and many experts, are quick to point out that public HBCUs are often underfunded by their states. Even with the extra money they receive from the federal government, they argue, the schools get less than 3 percent of federal higher-education funding — slightly less than the proportion of students they enroll.

They also say there remains a need for historically black schools: to serve disadvantaged students of any color. Many of them are actively courting low-income students of all races.

HBCUs “are there to provide opportunity and avenues for education for people who were disenfranchised,” said Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, an HBCU in Dallas. “Slavery has been over for a long time, so you can’t have such a narrow view point on this.”

Anthony Bradley, a professor at The King’s College in New York City who has written about HBCUs, disagrees. He said that broadly targeting disadvantaged students isn’t enough to merit continued special funding from the federal government, since many other colleges and universities also do this.

“That doesn’t set them apart from community colleges,” Bradley said. “Most colleges in the country have special programs to recruit and matriculate and graduate disadvantaged students.”

On a practical level, the increasing diversity of HBCUs has resulted from a need to fill seats to survive. Before desegregation, more than three-quarters of black college graduates went to HBCUs. Today, less than one-sixth of college-going blacks do, according to research by the Ford Foundation. (The Ford Foundation is amongthe funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

These institutions, in general, are also having trouble attracting students because of financial problems, low graduation rates, and other poor outcomes, and their enrollment is shifting along with broader changes in the demographics of incoming college students. The number of Hispanics and Asians in particular at HBCUs is climbing. Asian enrollment rose 60 percent from 2001 to 2011, and Asians now comprise about 1 percent of HBCU students, according to the University of Pennsylvania research. Hispanics make up about 3 percent.

“The reality is that if HBCUs — with the exception of maybe the top five or six — do not diversify, they’re all going to die,” said Bradley. “While they may continue in their mission in respect to providing opportunities to African-Americans on paper, in reality they’re simply going to have to become more like any university in the country.”

That’s what happened at Bluefield State. The transformation began in the 1960s, when falling racial barriers meant blacks could attend any university or college, and the school recruited returning Korean War veterans just to stay open.

In 1968, after a student set off a bomb on campus, the state closed the dorms. That turned Bluefield State into a commuter campus in a predominantly white area, which grew even whiter when the coal industry left town.

By the mid 1990s, black enrollment had dipped to about 6 percent, and there were no black faculty.

One alumnus, William White, who graduated from the school in 1968, said returning to the campus in the 1990s, when it had become overwhelmingly white, was “the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life.” Even so, he thinks the definition of HBCU should be flexible. It is possible for an HBCU to be minority black, he said, and the schools should “educate anybody that comes through their doors.”

Bluefield’s experience is reflected in the rise in Hispanic and Asian enrollment at HBCUs in states including North Carolina and Texas.

At Paul Quinn, Hispanic enrollment has grown from 3 percent of the total four years ago to 11 percent now. When the school awarded seven presidential scholarships last spring, four of the recipients were Hispanic, two were white, and only one was black.

Sorrell said that’s because the HBCUs’ message of support resonates with many cultures, and they’re not about to set the kind of racial quotas they were established in response to.

“It’s more important that we be concerned that we have kids in our schools that are excited to be there,” he said. “We will never get to a place where we will say, ‘No, we can’t admit more Hispanic kids.’”

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