Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 7, Number 4

Diversity Digest
Volume 8,
Number 1

Download our print issue (PDF)
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
The Right to Learn and the Pathways to College Network
Faculty Involvement
Designing Pathways to a Four-Year Degree
Preparing Students to Succeed in Broad Access Postsecondary Institutions
African-American Student Achievement in Historically Black Colleges and Universities
College Choice and Diversity
Making Diversity News
Media Watch
Linking Student Support with Student Success: The Posse Foundation
Diversity Digest’s New Editor

African-American Student Achievement in Historically
Black Colleges and Universities

By M. Christopher Brown II, Ph.D., executive director and chief research scientist at the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute

M. Christopher Brown II

M. Christopher Brown II

Recent demographic research has revealed that students from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds are already the majority in California, New Mexico, Mississippi, and Louisiana public schools. The same is true in many urban school districts in other states. The task of preparing these students to be productive citizens will fall on many types of postsecondary institutions. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of discourse about Native-American, Mexican, Hispanic, and African-American students who attend tribal colleges, Hispanic serving institutions, and historically black colleges and universities, respectively. We should know more about how these particular groups of students perform in and are served by these types of institutions. For example, what do we know about African-American student success at historically black institutions? Which programs or initiatives at these institutions promote achievement?

Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are institutions founded prior to 1964 to provide collegiate education to African Americans (Brown and Freeman, 2004). Currently, there are 105 public, private, four-year, and two-year historically black colleges and universities in the United States. In addition to the 105 HBCUs, there are more than fifty predominantly black institutions. Predominantly black colleges and universities are institutions that were not founded primarily for African Americans but have greater than 50 percent black student enrollment.
Like other American postsecondary institutions, historically black colleges and universities vary widely in size, curriculum specializations, and a host of other characteristics. HBCUs are distinctive, however, in their historic role providing postsecondary education for African Americans during the era of legal educational segregation. Understanding the fundamental characteristics of historically black colleges is a prerequisite for a meaningful discussion of equity and access issues in higher education. On the one hand, historically black colleges serve to develop, create, and convey advanced knowledge. In this way, they transmit and transform a society’s culture while educating its citizens. On the other, these institutions ensure that growing numbers of African Americans will be competent to serve as leaders and productive contributors to society.

Recent Data Trends

Data about African-American student achievement at the beginning of the twenty-first century reveal mixed progress. An analysis of the decade from 1990 to 2000 shows that African Americans are proportionately making great strides in college enrollment and degree attainment. During that decade, African Americans took standardized college entrance exams, attended institutions of higher learning, and fulfilled the academic demands for degree conferment at the highest rates in history. Such progress is largely a function of increased access to educational settings.

These academic achievements, however, have not lessened the continued gap between African Americans and whites in college enrollment and college completion. This gap is determined by the pathways through which students get to college and by their ability to navigate those academic pathways.

The findings reveal that African Americans are attending traditionally white institutions (TWIs) at higher rates than they are attending HBCUs. Moreover, whether they choose TWIs or HBCUs, African Americans are opting to attend private institutions. (See figures 1 and 2.)
Figure 2

FIgure 1

Status and Trends in the Education of Blacks (2003) revealed that of 1,730,318 African Americans attending colleges and universities, 13.1 percent attended HBCUs in the fall of 2000. Most notably, HBCUs conferred a statistically significant percentage of the bachelor’s degrees earned by African Americans. African Americans received about one-fourth of the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S. A comparison between the earlier data from the Nettles study (1996) and the more recent data of the Status and Trends study (2003) suggests that while African Americans are attending private TWIs at increased rates, they are not completing their degrees at TWIs at the same rate as those attending HBCUs. In effect, HBCUs continue to play an important role in graduating African-American students.
Figure 2

Figure 2

Institutional Models

Despite increasing enrollments of African-American students at institutions other than HBCUs, race-based hostilities continue to surface on white-majority campuses. In fact, the negative experiences that many African-American students encounter on some predominantly white campuses can potentially have injurious effects. By contrast, as Roebuck and Murty (1993) assert, “HBCUs, unlike other colleges, are united in a mission to meet the educational and emotional needs of black students.” They further suggest that “There is also a general level of satisfaction and camaraderie among black students at black schools that is not found among black students on white campuses.” However, the mere existence of intragroup racial homogeneity alone does not guarantee academic success. Like all institutions, HBCUs must focus on high-quality teaching, improve student-professor contact hours, and abolish institutional policies and practices that hinder student achievement.

The Freshman Year Initiative (FYI) at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina is a prime example of an institutional effort to encourage student success. Implemented in 1996 and coordinated through the University College, The Freshman Year Initiative is a comprehensive program of support designed to improve the academic success of freshmen. University College is primarily responsible for working with freshmen to ensure their successful transition into the upper divisions of the institution. Several units within the University College are directly involved in FYI: the Advisement/ Mentoring Office, the Freshman Seminar Program, Student Support Services, the Mathematics Laboratory, and the Writing Center. One-year retention rates have increased since FYI was implemented, and the freshman class that entered in 1996 is on track to have one of the best (if not the best) four-year graduation rates since these data have been recorded at the institution.


To achieve improved results for African-American students, wherever they are educated, researchers, policy makers, and practitioners must focus on efforts that make meaningful, long-term improvements at colleges while also targeting programs toward individual students. Coordinated institutional initiatives can assist particular students in areas where gaps in achievement are most pronounced. Systemic activities at historically black universities and other institutions with special populations are not a replacement for other diversity or equity activities that help predominantly white institutions recruit, retain, and educate African-American students. HBCUs can clearly serve as a resource for predominantly white institutions as they seek to strengthen society by educating increasing numbers of African-American students. The facts could not be clearer; HBCUs generate achievement and success for African-American students. All of higher education can learn from their legacy.


Brown, M. C., and Kassie Freeman, eds. 2004. Black colleges: New perspectives on policy and praxis. Westport: Praeger.

Brown, M. C. 1999. The quest to define collegiate desegregation: Black colleges, Title VI compliance, and post-Adams litigation. Westport: Bergin & Garvey.

Hoffman, Kathryn, and Charmaine Llagas. 2003. Status and trends in the education of blacks. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Hurst, T. 2002. United Negro College Fund 2001 statistical report. Fairfax, VA: Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute.

Roebuck, J. B., and K. S. Murty. 1993. Historically black colleges and universities: Their place in American higher education. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
Copyright 1996 - 2014
Association of American Colleges & Universities | 1818 R Street NW, Washington, DC, 20009