The Benefits and Challenges of Historically Black Institutions
INSIGHT Into Diversity recently spoke with leaders at three of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). They provided insight into the critical role these institutions play in ensuring access to higher education for African Americans and other underrepresented groups, as well as the most pressing issues faced by HBCUs today.
James A. Anderson, PhD, is the chancellor of and a professor of psychology at Fayetteville State University, a public HBCU in North Carolina.
Myra Burnett, PhD, is the interim provost of academic affairs at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, Ga.
C. Reynold Verret, PhD, is the president of Xavier University of Louisiana, a private HBCU in New Orleans, La.
Q: With the increased focus on diversity and inclusion in higher education in the last several years, is your institution facing additional competition recruiting and retaining diverse, high-achieving students, faculty, and administrators? How are you addressing this issue?
Anderson: Among the 16 universities in the University of North Carolina (UNC) System, Fayetteville State University (FSU) has the most diverse demographics despite its legacy as a historically black university. While the other four HBCUs in the UNC System have undergraduate enrollments that are over 90 percent African American, the African American enrollment at FSU is just 67 percent.
One area of student diversity that [we would like to] increase is the number of out-of-state students. The admissions department has expanded its recruiting [to these students], and we provide revenue for our faculty to attend recruitment fairs, especially those associated with STEM. We created new scholarships to attract students with higher academic profiles who are [from] out of state — for example, a new, highly competitive STEM scholarship. FSU has always had scholarship support for honors students, but we added a top honors scholarship called Global Scholars. Not only does it cover the cost of attendance, but students are also guaranteed annual international experiences. Global Scholars also live in residence halls with international students.
However, the biggest [factor] in increasing our student diversity both in- and out-of-state has been our distance-education degree program offerings. The largest increase in diversity [because of this has been] among older, out-of-state, international, and military students. Our belief is that this broad picture of diversity contributes to educational excellence.
In terms of faculty, three years ago, the university made a commitment to go after top young faculty in critical disciplines and to offer them competitive packages. We were able to increase the revenue necessary to do this by reallocating internal resources and getting some help from the UNC System. … We expanded our faculty search nationally, and we have placed more emphasis on those who provide evidence of productive student engagement.
Burnett: Spelman College has a distinguished history of recruiting and graduating high-achieving women of African descent who go on to stellar accomplishments in private and public sectors, both domestically and internationally. As is the case with all higher education institutions, we face competition for the best and brightest. To continue our ranking as a selective women’s college, we aggressively seek scholarship funding for outstanding students, which allows us to compete on a more even footing with comparable institutions who are able to [employ] need-blind admissions.
Spelman also has a multi-layered faculty development program [to attract high-quality faculty members], which includes annual per diem for travel to professional conferences, paid leave after a successful third-year review (pre-tenure), sabbatical leave every seven years (post-tenure), competitive internal grants, and membership with other institutions to promote collaborative projects and faculty development. Staff and faculty both enjoy other attractive benefits as well.
Verret: We face greater competition in recruiting talented young African American students, [but] it is a good thing that [these young people] have greater opportunity and choice. That was an essential hope and dream [of] our forebearers. Yet even in this competitive space, we are able to articulate persuasive reasons to attend an institution like Xavier. The quality of the education and the experience [it offers] paves a path for ongoing achievement and success.
Xavier prepares students who go on to realize [goals] on a national level, whether they major in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities. The faculty and student body cultivates an expectation of achievement, and the university continues to lead the nation in undergraduate preparation of African American physicians and pharmacists, as well as those who go on to earn doctoral degrees in the sciences. Likewise, despite greater competition for talent, faculty and administrators are convinced that Xavier is a place to accomplish good work.
Q: As prospective students and their families continue to demand a higher-quality, more affordable college education, what is your institution doing to expand program offerings and ensure affordability during a time of declining state support?
Anderson: In the UNC System, FSU has consciously kept tuition and fees at either the lowest or second lowest rate [because] we recognize the financial status of many of our students — 75 percent are Pell-eligible. We have been fortunate to garner significant support from foundations that allows us to maintain high-quality programs and think creatively about our future needs. Our provost has devised an evaluative model for academic departments that is incentive-based and commits them to ensuring excellence. Using eight metrics focused on student success — that apply specifically to faculty work and academic and administrative expertise — departments compete for increased resources. More importantly, we can document how the investments have been used and what the outcomes have been.
Recognizing the limitations of state support and tuition revenue, FSU has proactively sought out external funding to enhance programming and support services for its students. From this, we have received several competitive multi-year transformational grants from organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Negro College Fund and the Lilly Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation. These grants are allowing FSU to focus on creating models for student success.
FSU is also offering certificates and alternate credentials in areas such as cybersecurity, national security, and emergency management.
Burnett: As a private institution, we do not rely on state support. However, we are fiscally conservative and manage our resources well to offer an exceptional educational experience for current and future students.
With the arrival of President Mary Schmidt Campbell to Spelman, the ARTS@Spelman initiative was launched to explore the intersection between arts, liberal arts, and sciences. Already, it has led to the development of a vibrant Innovation Lab where students from all disciplines are able to design and build unique projects. The college is now engaged in extensive curriculum revision with the Innovation Lab … that will include interdisciplinary programs that combine multiple arts disciplines, as well as those that integrate arts with science, the humanities, and social sciences; these include engineering and fabrication, robotics, digital imaging and visual studies, dance and technology, music technology, and entrepreneurship. In these and other areas, we are developing cutting-edge programs that prepare students to be producers and thought leaders around new technologies, shaping the future for themselves and for others.
Verret: To begin with, Xavier strives to be affordable. Our tuition is less than two-thirds of the national average of our peer institutions, by which I mean the ensemble of good liberal arts institutions with enrollments between 2,000 and 5,000. Even when room and board is factored in, we are less expensive by 25 to 30 percent.
We work hard [to ensure] timely graduations so as not to add extra cost, and we are revising curricula and creating new programs, including interdisciplinary ones. In terms of curricula, we are currently revising our core, general-education curriculum, making it tighter and easier to navigate.
We also continue to examine our introductory classes and revise them when necessary, especially our developmental courses. Furthermore, the provost and I are reviewing new degree programs but are not yet ready to announce them.
Q: HBCUs are known for their legacy of serving the underserved in higher education. With this in mind, what is your university doing to provide continued academic support to ensure that your students graduate?
Anderson: First-time freshmen enter FSU’s University College, where they participate in a powerful first-year seminar that emphasizes critical thinking and writing, collaborative learning, and the utilization of academic supports. As students move into upper-level courses, faculty members are expected to reinforce these strategies in their courses.
First-year students who enter with learning differences, alternative learning styles, or learning disabilities participate in a unique support program called Bronco Star, which was initiated through external foundation support. Learning is more personalized and student-centered in this initiative.
Burnett: As recipients of a U.S. Department of Education First in the World grant, Spelman is investigating innovative learning theories to produce higher achievement and graduation rates for its students. We have a suite of academic support services, including a Center for Academic Performance and Success, which is the umbrella organization for our supplemental instruction and learning enhancement programs. The center provides individual assessments, tutorial services, and workshops to enhance student performance. In addition, the dean of undergraduate studies [focuses on advising] first-generation students, with voluntary mentoring exercises to help them take full advantage of the college experience.
We also recently received a Career Pathways Initiative grant from the United Negro College Fund, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. This initiative includes academic programs that encourage students to explore career options during the first and second year of college, internships with industry partners where students are exposed to the business environment, and [guidance around] problem-solving issues. In addition, we will develop specialty certifications in areas related to career development — in marketing, business intelligence, leadership, and data analytics — and provide faculty and staff development to help forge new models for career readiness in academic and co-curricular programs.
Verret: Sadly, not all U.S. students receive the pre-collegiate experience they deserve; thus it becomes the responsibility of all U.S. colleges to correct what was not provided to them earlier in their schooling. This is a difficult challenge. At Xavier, we do receive students with a range of pre-collegiate education. For those with less preparation, we have provided developmental curricula that help them complete their studies. Graduation is our goal.
The principal areas [we focus on] are quantitative skills (math) and language skills (writing and reading). We identify students based on ACT/SAT scores and high school GPA, as well as diagnostic tests. Students demonstrating certain needs are placed in courses that address their identified deficiencies. In addition, our Student Success Office provides tutoring and [training around] developmental skills — such as study skills — that have not been developed during earlier schooling.●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.