In the United States, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are designated by Congress as institutions that provided higher education to African American students prior to 1964. In March 2017, Howard University, the most iconic HBCU, celebrated 150 years of advancing knowledge with a positive announcement: enrollment statistics were on the rise and diversity across the student body was growing as well.
The HBCU designation has never signified that these schools could only be attended by African Americans; however, the painful history of racial divisiveness in the US is probably to blame for the little diversity experienced over many decades. As can be expected, some of the most prestigious degree and research programs related to African and African American subjects can be found at HBCUs; for this reason, demographics in the student body and faculties of these schools tend to be predominantly African American.
HBCUs receive special federal funding to carry out their historical mission, but they are not at risk of losing such funding if their student bodies suddenly shift towards Asian or Hispanic American majorities; however, their recruiting and outreach should always be focused on benefiting the African American community. Until the 1980s, HBCUs enjoyed healthy enrollment figures thanks to their standing in African American communities. As Reaganomics and the failed trickle-down theory of economic development took their toll on middle class African American communities, HBCU enrollment suffered; this situation prompted admissions departments to start recruiting across ethnicities, something that they had mostly neglected to do until that point.
According to the Pew Research Center, the overall rate of non-African American students at HBCUs in 1980 was 13 percent. In 2017, that rate had jumped to 17 percent. Hispanic students represented the highest jump from 1.6 to 4.6 percent, and this could be attributed to the affinity between Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean cultures. While HBCUs were becoming more diverse, African American students started seeking other options. In 1980, more than a third of African American students who received bachelor degrees attended HBCUs. By 2015, that figure had shrunk to 15 percent. A contributing factor may be that the socioeconomic reality of the US calls for more technology degrees, particularly in relation to informatics, computer science, and engineering; it so happens that HBCUs have not generally focused their efforts in these areas.
Although university enrollments among African Americans sharply increased during the two terms served by former President Barack Obama, HBCUs reported a decline in admissions. Interestingly, the racial unrest experienced across the US since President Donald Trump started his controversial election campaign in 2015 has boosted interest in these schools. One month prior to the 2016 presidential election, Spelman College in Atlanta received its highest number of applications in 135 years, and the majority of applicants were African Americans.
Under recommendations from a couple of advisors, President Trump signed an Executive Order in 2017 to give greater government support to HBCUs, although future funding levels for the institutions could now potentially be put at risk. What the President may not realize, however, is that his demonstrated lack of tact around issues relating to race and ethnicity may actually be bolstering enrollments at HBCUs out of sheer protest.