The Unique Role of the HBCU Community College

All smiles in Professor Sonya Hester's class at Southern University at Shreveport, Louisiana.
All smiles in Professor Sonya Hester’s class at Southern University at Shreveport, Louisiana. Photo via SUSLA.
President Obama recently announced his initiative to make attending community college essentially free. This announcement was met with mixed response from the HBCU community. A number of HBCU advocates expressed deep concern as to whether this would prove detrimental to HBCU enrollments. However, in these conversations one subject that was not prevalent were the HBCUs that undoubtedly would benefit from this initiative—HBCU Community Colleges. There are 13 HBCU community colleges and they play a unique yet important role in the higher education landscape. They not only service as points of access for students, a resource to the community, and as centers of vocational training for both non-traditional and traditional students. We need these institutions to be strengthened and working at an optimal level.

HBCU community colleges, which make up 12% of all HBCUs, are located in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Taking a closer look at the demographics of these communities – they enroll 24,000 students and each year, on average, award 3,800 associate degrees. They serve 3% of African American students attending college, but a larger percentage of the African American college students in the South. The student population of the nation’s two-year HBCUs is 81 percent Black, 10 percent White, and the balance is Latino and Asian. The full-time retention rate at two-year HBCUs is 52 percent, which is ten points less than those community colleges that serve low numbers of students of color. The part-time retention rate for two-year HBCUs is 42 percent.

HBCU community colleges give students who often do not see an open avenue to college education an opportunity to go and prepare to transfer to a four-year institution. Students with a more immediate need of vocational training can also find access at these institutions. Both of these avenues of education are important as they aid in the economic development of the surrounding community. Community colleges often offer courses at times and prices that are more accessible for non-traditional students than 4-year institutions. These are the same students that can find themselves attracted to for profit institutions for similar reasons of accessibility. Community college prove important options for this group of students, providing face to face interaction, flexible schedules, and affordability. Furthermore, the HBCU community college embodies the mission of servicing, uplifting, and empowering underrepresented communities particularly Black communities; for profit institutions do not.

HBCU community colleges provide much to their surrounding communities. They are often spaces that host afterschool programs and summer programs for the Black youth in the surrounding community, cultural programs for community enrichment, and gathering spaces for community organizations and conversations. Programs such as the GED classes at Gadsden Community College, the Workforce Development Division at JF Drake State Technical College, or the Homebuyer Education and Youth Initiatives programs at Southern University at Shreveport are all examples of these types of community programs.

These institutions are important to their communities and important to the students that they service. Yet, like most community colleges they need increased financial support to ensure that they can continue to service students and their surrounding communities. As HBCU community colleges are strengthened it provides an optimum opportunity for four-year HBCUs to partner with them more fully. Four-year HBCUs should explore constructing more and deeper articulation agreements with these community colleges. For example, Shorter College has a credit transfer agreement with Arkansas Baptist College and Philander Smith College. This agreement provides seamless transitions and motivates students to not only strive towards completing their associate degrees but also to continue to a four-year institution – another HBCU that provides similar care and has a mission of racial uplift. As we work to advocate for the support and protection of HBCUs, we should be careful to remember the diversity among them. HBCU community colleges are doing a great work – necessary work, invaluable work. They are an important piece to the HBCU community and support for them should be considered support for all HBCUs and African American communities.

About the Authors

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 18 books in these subject areas and many articles.

Felecia Commodore, Penn Center for Minority Serving InstitutionsFelecia Commodore is a fourth year PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She has a background working as an admissions counselor and academic advisor at Trinity University, Washington, D.C. and University of Maryland, College Park respectively. Felecia obtained an M.A. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Maryland, College Park, MD and a B.S. in Marketing with a minor in Sociology from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Felecia was recently a 2013 intern for the Southern Education Foundation. Felecia’s research focus area is HBCU leadership, governance, and administrative practices.

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