The Black College is Dead


The black college is dying. In my opinion, the preference for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) seems to be waning. HBCUs were once the home of our educational investments, but are now likened to the land of Reconstruction Era relics. In contrast to my viewpoint, in the Black Enterprise article The HBCU Debate: Are Black Colleges & Universities Still Needed?, the author states that “HBCUs represent about 3 percent of colleges in the U.S. but enroll 12 percent of all Black college students and produce 23 percent of all Black college graduates.”

I can understand that many may disagree with my opinion, but personally, it is less of a concern that I hear about stories of exceptionalism, as presented in some of the studies I’ve read. I am more concerned about the areas of failure contributing to the slow demise of HBCUs such as relying on a few successful graduates to prove the efficacy of HBCUs, the lack of alumni support, or the disappointing and declining retention rates.

According to a report in the Journal of Blacks at Higher Education, “At nearly half the HBCUs in our survey, the Black student graduation rate is 33 percent or lower.” As a proud graduate of an HBCU (Tougaloo College), these statistics concern me. If alumni do not start caring more about their alma mater, if HBCUs do not start caring more about their faculty, and if students do not start caring more about the culture of their campuses, HBCUs may become nothing more than post-Civil War antiques. Things need to change — now.

The HBCU retention rate is low. This is caused by a myriad of reasons, but largely because the students it retains are not actively involved in the affairs of their alma mater. We are not involved financially or as attentively as we need to be. It is no secret that African American history is filled with countless examples of black people who benefited from a community they never supported in return. Therefore, if the various statistics are correct, and HBCUs are mostly responsible for the growth of black doctors, lawyers, engineers and PhDs, then why is that not reflected in the donations? Either the statistics are incorrect or graduates are not returning the favors. Alumni need to show support financially and not just by attending homecoming events, sporting college apparel in representation of their alma mater, and engaging in unnecessary arguments with graduates of rival institutions. Donations, however, are not the only way to show support. HBCU graduates can join alumni associations, help host college fairs, join recruitment efforts and most importantly, sponsor a student.

The low retention rates and overall lack of funding contributes to the mistreatment of HBCU faculty. HBCUs will remain in their current state they fail to change the way members of the faculty are treated. Most of the faculty members are extremely overworked. Long office hours, an extensive course load, unappreciative students and quasi sabbaticals are a lot harder to handle when the school does not always have the funds to confer tenure. Many times I have seen distress on the faces of my professors as they spent countless hours grading half decent papers or returning from last minute faculty meetings. I am aware, of course, that this is not exclusive to HBCUs.

The assertion that students and professors at HBCUs are like family members and not just numbers or statistics comes into question when professors are not valued for the work that they do. Improved treatment of instructors would include allocating lighter coarse loads, providing the option for more sabbaticals and creating a better support system for their development as educators.

Finally, I believe the HBCU is in its current state because the cultures of the campuses are not conducive for student retention. The things that once made HBCUs special are the same things that are causing them to suffer. HBCUs are known for boisterous homecomings, marching bands and Greek life, but not as much for academic rigor, leadership training or character development. I am not implying that the latter is not present, but I am stating that the latter is not expected as much as the former. Historically, homecomings served as a time to boast about how our alma mater helped us accomplish our goals, now they are the only times that alumni donate money. Historically, marching bands and Greek letter organizations were inspirations for grade improvement and character enhancement, but are now pursued at the expense of those things. We have to — no we must — switch the priorities on our campuses to other aspects of campus life. I am not implying we should rid ourselves of Greek letter organizations and marching bands, but suggesting we cease privileging them to the extent that we currently do. Let us start focusing on the values once underpinning homecomings, marching bands and Greek life: social solidarity and enhancement.

HBCUs were once places where the black community protected its raisins from the sun, but it now appears to be a locale where grapes are no longer planted. Since President Obama signed an executive order to allocate $228 million in grants to 97 HBCUs, much discussion has taken place regarding the relevance of and need for HBCUs. Some exaggerate its need, while most disregard its importance. I believe HBCUs are vital to American life, but like Dr. Eddie Glaude said about the Black Church, this death “occasions an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black.” This death is an opportunity for HBCUs to (re)define what it means to be an institution in the 21st century that addresses the beautiful and the ugly in the age of Obama, the New Jim Crow, issues of poverty, and so forth. This is a sad time, but it is also a time to change, to care, and to improve so that HBCUs can continue the legacy of creating some of the best leaders the world has ever seen.

Do you agree that “the black college is dead”?


Jamall Andrew Calloway is from Oakland, CA. He is a summa cum laude graduate of Tougaloo College, Jackson, MS. He is currently a Masters of Divinity Candidate at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, CT and an associate minister at Mt. Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport, CT. You can follow him on Twitter @JACalloway1940 and his blog heartofandrew.


  1. Kendrick Staley

    January 14, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Well done! I have to admit when I first read the title I was thinking “here we go again another article about why HBCU’s are no longer needed in post racial america”…but I was presently surprised. The key takeaway I got from this is that we must take ownership of, be accountable for, contribute to and demand excellence from our institutions. Agreed some soul searching is in order…

    • Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

      January 14, 2013 at 2:39 pm

      Thanks for saying what needs to be heard nationwide with such graceful Tougaloo College/Alpha Phi Alpha style.

  2. Kris Chan

    January 15, 2013 at 12:55 am

    Well said, friend.

  3. Lorri

    January 15, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    I struggle with this because what it suggest is what used to be a beacon of opportunity within the African American community is now abandoned because we refuse to support it. It appears as we as a culture and race continue to elevate we abandon the entities which allowed us to move forward. Not sure how to solve the lack of philanthropy at our HBCU schools unless it takes colleges beginning to close.

  4. Candice Love Jackson

    January 15, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    Amazing insights!

  5. Jasmine

    January 15, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    I completely again. I also feel that this is tragic because as a fellow historical black college graduate, I know how vital the HBCU can be in regaining and starting to understand our black heritage. HBCUs, at least most, allocate resources and educational activities to connecting with our African roots. Without that experience many black people may be even more lost in terms of understanding where we come from.

  6. B A Pillow

    June 7, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Black people and the history in America has always been under attack, that’s not new. It’s another look at racism that still exists in America.
    The President’s financial allocations may have something to do with the issue at this juncture; his programs are under attack also. He has opened the door for a Black person from an HBCU to be the next Black President.

  7. Harold Davis

    June 10, 2013 at 11:20 am

    I recently made a statement via Twitter that our publicly funded HBCUs should consider consolidation , as a means of becoming more financially viable and sustainable. This could be done by merging two or more existing HBCUs in close proximity or having public HBCUs become part of an existing majority white college system. As a trial ballon this elicted a great deal of negative reaction. Proud HBCU alums saw this stance as a surrender. But the reality, as was pointed out to me vividly at my son’s senior class day program, black kids are becoming less inclined to see, OUR schools as first choices. Of the 200 so kids graduating only TWO mentioned scholarship offers from HBCUs. This happened at a high school in Ridgeland, MS where the nearest 4 year school just happens to be the undergraduate alma mater of this article’s writer.

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