The Blacker the College, the Sweeter the Knowledge

By Janelle Wallace
Illustration by Quiana Parks

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are pillars in the Black community, keepers of history, and carriers of a legacy deserving of preservation. Stepping onto the campus of any HBCU, it’s hard not to consider the hallowed ground beneath your feet, to know that scores of revered alumni once called this same campus home and learned many of the same lessons imparted over the course of matriculation.

As we make our way through summer, the pervasive conversation revolves around what college life looks like in the midst of a pandemic? Will students be allowed on campus? Do colleges move to an online learning model? And what about sports?

The question that I keep returning to is “How are (HBCUs) uniquely affected during this time?” These institutions that are historically underfunded, and thus vulnerable, are just one example in a long list of inequities strewn on the Black community—inequities that were further amplified by the COVID-19 crisis.

I can’t overstate how integral my time at Howard University was to not only my career but how I traverse the world as a Black woman. It’s generally accepted in the Black community that we must be twice as good to get half as far as our white counterparts. HBCUs are uniquely equipped to assist students in this realization and prepare us to meet these challenges head-on. In addition to learning the topics at hand in the classroom, you are taught how to apply that knowledge in a world that is built to be systemically disadvantageous for you.

For me, Howard offered a safe space—a place I didn’t have to “code switch” or play down my Blackness. My time on campus underscored that Blackness isn’t a monolith. The beauty in regionality, varying interests, and belief systems were on full display. Those four years were a type of rite of passage, that, once you graduated, you had access to an incredible alumni network that is constantly opening doors and pulling others through.

My time on campus underscored that Blackness isn’t a monolith. The beauty in regionality, varying interests, and belief systems were on full display.

After the summer of unrest in which the country reckoned with the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and far too many others, dozens of HBCUs saw increased interest from Black students. It was reported that about a third of all HBCUs saw spikes in freshmen enrollment, reversing declines that date to the economic downturn of 2008. I’d venture to say that, if not for the current pandemic, we’d likely see a similar trend.

As we head into the 2020 presidential election, policies created to combat racial disparities are top of mind. Joe Biden announced his proposal in January that includes a $70 billion investment into HBCUs. This is important because, historically, within both the public and private sectors, HBCU endowments lag behind those of non-HBCUs by at least 70% according to a recent report by the American Council on Education.

According to Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, the future of higher education will include partnerships with large tech companies (think Google, Facebook, and Apple) and elite universities. He posits that these partnerships will allow universities to expand enrollment dramatically by offering hybrid online-offline degrees, the affordability and value of which will seismically alter the landscape of higher education. He also predicts many brick-and-mortar universities going out of business or only being accessible to children of the affluent. This obviously leaves the oft-forgotten HBCU in a precarious situation.

Not only will the pandemic wreak havoc financially, it may also culturally bankrupt these institutions. Activities such as homecoming and watching Greek probates on the yard double as marketing tools for prospective students. HBCUs likely won’t be able to rely on that this year. 

Recently, high school basketball phenom Mikey Williams pondered about the prospect of playing at an HBCU in a tweet: “Going to an HBCU wouldn’t be too bad.” Just days after a weekend filled with protests and social unrest across the country, Williams' statement about potentially playing for a historically Black college or university garnered national media attention. His mother played softball at Hampton University, so the prospect doesn’t seem far-fetched.

Then on July 3rd, Makur Maker, ranked #16 in the ESPN 100, made the unexpected announcement that he was committing to Howard University. This choice makes him the first five-star to commit to an HBCU since ESPN started the ranking in 2007. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Maker’s visit to campus was timed during homecoming weekend. Some hope that this starts a trend of top-tier athletes sidestepping the traditional sports powerhouses and bringing attention and money to these HBCUs. But has COVID put all of this in jeopardy? After all, there is a chance the 6-foot-11 center won’t play an official game in Burr Gymnasium given the precautions being taken by many athletic departments to curb the spread of the disease and the likelihood of him entering the 2021 NBA draft. 

This begs the question, as students examine what the on-campus college experience looks like, will they opt out altogether? Struggling to answer the question myself, I turned to my fellow Team Epiphany HBCU alumni for their thoughts on the future of HBCUs.

“The impact of the pandemic will be felt all around and unfortunately, disproportionally at our HBCU’s. This is an extremely tough situation to navigate and we have limited resources. I think it’s going to really take the community—current students, alums, facult and leadership—coming together to create an action plan for how we collectively ride this out and return to some sort of normalcy, especially for our future students. I don’t have the answers, myself, and think we’re still a few months out from really understanding the short term and long term impact. I do know this, though, we need our HBCUs!”

Susan Morgan, VP, New Business
Howard University

“The on-campus HBCU experience is super important for the development of students not just academically, but for their overall confidence and approach to life and career. I really worry that this next generation is going to lose what it means to actually go to an HBCU. With the racial injustice uprising, I think there is going to be an increase in enrollment at HBCUs. We already see the impact in sports, so I hope even more people see the value of HBCUs. Showing the span of our culture is so important!”

Alex Hill, Account Supervisor
Hampton University

“On-campus classes will be worrisome, but I also know that for a lot of students, on-campus housing and the meal plans is what they need to get through; I fear that a lot of students will suffer as a result. I am also concerned that the government will hold back funds if the schools don’t “open.” On the flipside, one thing the pandemic and the cultural shift that is bubbling within the country has also brought on is an interest from student athletes unlike we’ve seen in recent times. If the trend continues, the money will follow. Alumni need to give back and support the schools and yell from the rafters anytime we can about how dope the experience is for young Black kids. If we don’t take care of ourselves, no one else will. Black students should be able to go where you’re appreciated, not tolerated.”

Thembi Wesley, VP, Experiential
Howard University

In a racial climate that underscores the need for HBCUs as a safe space, the pandemic has had and will have for the foreseeable future, severe ramifications. The same history of oppression and institutional racism that ignited the protests has left many Black schools underfunded and ill-prepared to handle the current circumstances. The saying goes that when America catches a cold, Black people get pneumonia. HBCUs represent legacy, pride, history, and community—all of which are too precious and too important to let struggle and fold. ︎