Red, Blue & You: Sustainably Supporting HBCUs
Investing in HBCUs is the most prudent business decision.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been the backbone of Black education for over a century, long before Black students were allowed to mingle with white students. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the first HBCU, was founded in 1837 at a time when many Black people were still considered property. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Black students began to integrate with white students in meaningful numbers. We had to take it upon ourselves to educate ourselves.
The disparities in education between white and Black students is still massive, to put it mildly. While the enrollment gap has narrowed, with 42% of young white people attending college vs. 37% of young Black people, graduation rates tell a different story. Only half of Black college students graduate within six years, as opposed to nearly 70% of white students. And far more Black students default on their student loans – 28% of Black graduates vs. 5% of white graduates – setting them much further back in life.
Those figures highlight the importance of debt relief and forgiveness for the Black community, a need that Sen. Raphael Warnock has pushed for since his inauguration and one that President Joe Biden recognized with his executive actions earlier this year. However, while federal loan forgiveness is an important and long overdue step, it does nothing to address the failures of our higher education system at the front end.
That is where HBCUs come in. Georgia has a rich history of Black education as the home of nearly a dozen HBCUs: Albany State University, Clark Atlanta University, Fort Valley State University, Interdenominational Theological Center, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, Morris Brown College, Paine College, Savannah State University and Spelman College. These institutions make it possible for Black students to see themselves represented in the highest echelons of our education system, one that often disregards the unique needs and perspectives of people of color.
As a graduate of Clark Atlanta myself, I have seen the power of HBCUs firsthand. While the number of students enrolled at HBCUs is dwarfed by those enrolled at larger universities, HBCUs offer unique benefits to Black students that cannot be found elsewhere. For lower-income Black students – those who have the greatest need to earn a bachelor’s degree to escape the cycle of generational poverty – HBCUs offer the highest graduation rates.
That is why it is more important than ever to invest in the long-term health of our HBCUs. We have seen some steps taken to that effect recently, from private investors such as Southern Company, IBM and Netflix pledging tens of millions of dollars to public investments from the Biden administration to the tune of $2.7 billion, including $260 million for HBCUs in Georgia. Also, Southern Company, Apple and Disney are developing the Propel Center to offer collaborative STEM-type curriculum programming for HBCUs. All of these investments recognize the need for stronger development of diverse talent that’s offered by HBCUs.
These investments are welcome, necessary and insufficient. Diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) initiatives have become increasingly prevalent at Fortune 500 companies but they are hollow promises without meaningful action. Our HBCUs graduate some of the best and brightest minds from a wide range of backgrounds. Their perspectives are needed at large companies, which are looking to consumers who are becoming more diverse with each passing year. Without diverse perspectives, companies risk being left behind.
Investing in HBCUs is not just a moral decision, it’s the most prudent business decision. I have stayed involved with Clark Atlanta University as an alumnus, mentor, donor and board member for decades because I have seen the power and freedom that an HBCU education offers. There is a unique culture and pride that comes with that education, one that cannot be found elsewhere. When I walk into the homecoming celebrations every year, I feel like I’m at home. I can bring my full self to those events because I know the people around me can, too. There are few other places where that is the case.
For as much progress as this country has made since its founding, we are still dealing with the consequences of historic and systemic racism. Black workers still have lower graduation rates, lower salaries, lower net worth and higher loan default rates than our white counterparts. We have a responsibility to work together, from public institutions to private companies, to close that gap. There is no better place to start than by supporting our HBCUs.