As September commences, life on college campuses around the nation is in full swing. This past Labor Day weekend, which arguably was one of the greatest opening weekends ever for college football fans like myself, highlighted the pervasive influence and impact the collegiate world has on our nation.
Top-ranked programs such as the University of Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame are household names. And though during this time of year we often tend to forget it, these large universities are important drivers of intellectual and economic advancement.
Yet the collegiate landscape comprises not only large and towering universities. The smaller ones are just as vital. Among these are a category of institutions known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Their mission remains important today, for minorities and increasingly for many white students, that our own U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne helped establish the bipartisan Congressional Historically Black Colleges and Universities Caucus.
Rep. Byrne co-founded the HBCU Caucus with fellow Congresswoman Alma Adams (D-North Carolina) over a year ago. The caucus comprises more than 35 Republican and Democratic legislators from across the country.
According to Byrne, “HBCUs are an integral part of the higher education mosaic in the United States. They provide opportunities to some Americans who may not otherwise have the opportunity to attend an institution of higher education. At the same time, they face many unique challenges, which is one of the main reasons we formed the HBCU Caucus.”
This summer, Byrne and Adams introduced and shepherded to approval the HBCU Capital Financing and Improvement Act. This bill will help HBCUs improve and modernize their campus infrastructure. The HBCU Caucus has also helped facilitate discussion between members of Congress and representatives of major corporations on ways to increase internship and apprenticeship programs for HBCUs, as well as engage with new Secretary of Education John King to discuss ways the federal Department of Education is supporting HBCUs.
As Byrne succinctly noted, “Our bipartisan HBCU Caucus allows for important dialogue among members of Congress about HBCUs and ways we can increase opportunity for students at HBCUs. I am proud of the progress we have made, and I look forward to even more accomplishments and growth in the coming years.”
Some may see HBCUs as relics of a bygone era. With institutional barriers long since removed that once prevented persons of color from attending the university or college of their choice, some have asked, “Why are they still needed?” There have been moves to eliminate or consolidate them.
In 2011, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal sought to merge historically black Southern University, located in New Orleans, with the mostly white University of New Orleans. It didn’t go over well; the proposal was defeated.
Likewise, in the neighboring state of Mississippi, former Gov. Haley Barbour in 2009 proposed merging the state’s three public HBCUs into one. That too was tabled. At various times, in other states, including our own, such discussions have surfaced.
Is maintaining these unique institutions of higher learning merely about preserving history, or would their absence truly create an educational void that, for many, would be difficult to fill? Though the history and culture of these institutions are incredibly valuable in their own right, I would submit that the educational purpose HBCUs serve is of even greater importance.
HBCUs represent 3 percent of colleges and universities, yet graduate 20 percent of African-Americans who hold undergraduate degrees. In engineering, technology, math and science, HBCUs turn out 25 percent of African-American undergraduates.
Overall, the more than 100 HBCUs scattered across the country enroll more than 300,000 students per year. That’s not to mention those with graduate programs in fields from education to medicine. Their presence and purpose is critical.
We need only survey our own community to see the impact of HBCUs. The very talented Kym Thurman, evening anchor for local NBC affiliate WPMI 15, attended a small Christian HBCU in Huntsville named Oakwood University.
She stated she actually started at a large university in California, her native state. However, with the very large class sizes, she felt like “just a number lost in the midst of students.” When she transferred to Oakwood, she felt at home, the teachers actually knew her name and genuinely cared about her.
She movingly observed, “If it weren’t for those teachers who pushed me and made me feel like I could take on the world, I wouldn’t have gotten my start in TV.” She landed a job with the local NBC affiliate in Huntsville before receiving her diploma.
Dr. Monica Motley, president of the Alabama School of Math and Science, had similar comments about her time at Alabama State University in Montgomery. Dr. Motley noted, “I personally benefited from attending an HBCU. … I was provided opportunities for leadership … received an excellent education, and a network of lifelong relationships with other professionals.”
Marc Jackson, former vice president of commercial banking at Wells Fargo Bank in Mobile, said his time at Alabama A&M in Huntsville taught him the skills he would need to be successful and competitive in corporate America.
These three, along with others I talked with, and the plethora of African-American professionals in Mobile and across the country, are proof that HBCUs are more than just relics of history: they are powerful shapers of the present and the future.