Setting the Record Straight Regarding Student Enrollment at HBCUs

Last Updated on May 27, 2023

Claflin University students and faculty in group photo.
Photo via Claflin University
A common narrative shared among the popular press and social media is the declining student enrollment among Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). However, for many HBCUs, not only has the 2015 academic year brought an increase in the number of student applications, but some of the largest freshmen classes in years. Increases in both student applications and enrollment numbers is a positive step in the right direction to help create a counter narrative that speaks to the value and contribution of HBCUs in educating students, especially within the current racial context in the United States.

It appears that the hard work and effort HBCUs are putting toward enrollment management initiatives, specifically student recruitment, is not being celebrated in the manner it deserves. For example, Edward Waters College saw an increase in applications and enrollment this fall, which puts them on pace for their highest enrollment in years. Similarly, Harris-Stowe State University experienced a growth in applications and enrollment as well. Near record freshmen class enrollments took place this fall at Claflin University, Morehouse College, South Carolina State University, Paul Quinn College and Miles College. In fact, Paul Quinn College enrolled more new students than its entire student body from the previous year.

Cynics might think the increase in enrollment at HBCUs is a fluke. However, perhaps it is the result of targeted marketing, promotion of institutional strengths, and some hard work. For example, for some HBCUs such as South Carolina State University, an increase in Black men helped boost their enrollment numbers. Although it may be difficult to substantiate, there’s reason to believe that the increased focus on the success of Black, men through national initiatives such as My Brother’s Keeper has contributed to student enrollment growth at HBCUs. In the case of Harris-Stowe State University, their ability to expand the number of undergraduate degree programs and majors as well as offering graduate degree programs has helped to garner the interest of new students.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement may also have had an impact on the increased enrollment this year. As HBCUs have a long history of civil rights activism and have been the home to many aspects of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, students interested in activism may be attracted to these institutions, which are devoid of White racism.

Clearly, many HBCUs are making progress with regard to increasing their student enrollment numbers. However, given the importance in how increases in student enrollments can play a major role in helping recruit future students and faculty, we present five recommendations that HBCUs should consider to help increase student growth on their campuses.

1. Expand Undergraduate Academic Program Offerings and Majors

HBCUs should focus their undergraduate academic program offerings and majors, preferably on academic programs and majors that are tied to fast growth job sectors of the 21st century or that are tied to the needs of the local and regional economy.

2. Partner with Local and Regional Business & Industry Organizations

HBCUs would benefit from developing partnerships with local and regional business & industry that will allow the institutions to provide students with relevant and real-world industry experiences. Another advantage of forging these partnerships is that HBCUs can contribute to local workforce development initiatives.

3. Develop Graduate Programs in New and Emerging STEM Disciplines

HBCUs should develop graduate programs connected to new and emerging STEM disciplines. There may also be growth opportunities for graduate program related to the health, agricultural and life sciences.

4. Enhance the Focus on Student Recruitment and Retention

HBCUs should continue to enhance their focus on student recruitment and retention. In particular, efforts should focus on innovative marketing strategies, strategic recruitment and more access to academic success and student support services.

5. Develop Recruitment Initiatives for Black Men

HBCUs should develop targeted recruitment initiatives for Black men. With the ever-growing focus on enhancing the personal growth and development of Black men, HBCUs are in an ideal position to foster the environment needed for Black men to succeed academically and graduate from college.

The increases in student applications and admissions being witnessed at HBCUs across the country are not mere aberrations. However, more effort needs to be done to set the record straight and counteract the false narrative that is often communicated in mainstream media. For many HBCUs, much progress has been made in addressing issues of student enrollment.

About the Authors

Levon T. EstersLevon T. Esters is an associate professor of youth development at Purdue University and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Levon's research focuses on the STEM career development of underrepresented minorities (URMs), mentoring of females and URM graduate students in STEM, and the role of historically Black land-grant institutions in fostering the STEM success of females and URMs.
Marybeth Gasman, Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as the Director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Marybeth is an expert on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black leadership, fundraising and philanthropy in communities of color and Minority Serving Institutions. She is the author of 21 books in these subject areas and over 300 articles.

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