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Affirmative action reversal could increase enrollment, deepen challenges at HBCUs

University presidents expect ruling to prompt more students to seek out Black colleges

There’s one event at historically Black colleges and universities that recalls the spirit of revival, return and relationships: homecoming.

However, homecoming might take on a secondary meaning after the Supreme Court’s recent decision that outlawed affirmative action in college admissions if Black students, denied even the notion of diversity at predominantly white institutions, make a Moses-like exodus from those schools and head home to HBCUs.

Makola Abdullah, president of Virginia State University, anticipates “growing enrollments” due to the court decision and previous flashpoints such as the murder of George Floyd while in police custody in 2020.

​​“There are people who are thinking about their Blackness, thinking about their place in this country and thinking about the idea that HBCUs could help them learn more about their place in the United States,” Abdullah said. “Many of the programs that [predominantly white institutions] have put in place to welcome Black, brown and other students are now being dismantled, and so you have students who … are looking for a place to be more welcome. And HBCUs provide that.”

Clark Atlanta University president George French, who spoke to ABC News in the aftermath of the affirmative action decision, called the ruling an “opportunity for HBCUs” and anticipated “increased enrollment opportunities for students of color who may be denied access to PWIs.”

“HBCUs have provided excellent education options to African Americans since their founding, with Atlanta University established in 1865 and Clark College in 1869. We are prepared to continue offering these viable options of excellence in education,” he wrote in a statement.

The promise of higher enrollment comes with its own set of challenges. 

In recent years, high-profile HBCUs such as Florida A&M University and Howard University have experienced housing shortages.

While Abdullah acknowledged the frustrations of students and parents when it came to places to stay, he called the housing crunch a “good problem to have.”

“There are more than a few HBCUs experiencing this problem,” he said. “The only time that you don’t have housing problems is when you’re not growing. At the same time, I think we’ve gotta be more mindful about making sure that we grow in the right way. Sometimes, that means not growing too fast to make sure that we can accommodate the students that we have.”

Funding is another issue for HBCUs. Black college leaders gathered in Atlanta from July 17-20 at the 2023 Unite UNCF Summit for Black Higher Education to discuss hot-button topics, including financial support for HBCUs – and the lack thereof.

In 2022, Forbes magazine reported on the historic underfunding of Black schools under a provocative title, How America Cheated Its Black Colleges.

“Compared to their predominantly white counterparts, the nation’s Black land-grant universities have been underfunded by at least $12.8 billion over the last three decades,” read the story’s tagline.

Undaunted, Black college presidents have stepped up to the plate. Aminta Breaux, president of Bowie State University in Maryland, recently celebrated reaching a $50 million fundraising goal 2½ years ahead of schedule.

“It starts with telling our story and making sure that the general public knows who we are. Ten years ago, if you were to talk about HBCUs, the average person didn’t know what an HBCU was,” Breaux said. “I’ve been working considerately with my administration to tell our story, to do more branding, to do more marketing, to do more public relations, to get our story out and ensure that we become not just regionally known but nationally known.”

Another key factor in fundraising? Creating a “culture of philanthropy,” which has increased Bowie State’s endowment from $7 million to $40 million during Breaux’s tenure.

“We’re doing some incredible work here in cybersecurity, in nursing, in data analytics, and these state-of-the-art, cutting-edge areas that are aligned with the workforce. But if you don’t tell your story, then who knows that you’re worthy of that investment?” she said. “It’s not just about writing a check, it’s about looking at the long-term investment.”

Historically, the burden of responsibility to close the financial gap has fallen on various entities – students and parents, alumni, and state and federal governments.

Abdullah touted the power of private philanthropy, which he has seen firsthand. In 2020, Virginia State received the largest single donor gift in the school’s history, a $30 million donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

The fallout from the summer of discontent in 2020 may have changed the collective fate of HBCUs forever. A report from the nonprofit Candid compared the inequities in philanthropic giving between predominantly white institutions and HBCUs from 2002 to 2019. From 2015 to 2019, the average Ivy League institution received 178 times more funding from U.S. foundations than the average HBCU, with Ivy schools getting a combined $5.5 billion in philanthropic dollars, compared with $303 million for HBCUs, the report said.

In 2020, that number rose because of donors like Scott – and so did interest in historically Black colleges and universities. According to USA Today, applications increased 30% at some Black institutions.

Those numbers are a reminder of just how far our schools have come in nearly two centuries. 

In 1837, Richard Humphreys, a Quaker, established the first HBCU, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania. Much like the murder of Floyd, it was Black bloodshed – specifically race riots in Philadelphia and Cincinnati – that inspired Humphreys to set aside $10,000 to found the school, which was initially named the African Institute and then the Institute for Colored Youth before it was changed to Cheyney. He charged his fellow Quakers “to instruct the descendents of the African Race in school learning, in the various branches of the mechanic arts, trades and agriculture, in order to prepare and fit and qualify them to act as teachers.”

Land-grant HBCU institutions were founded in 1890 with the passage of the second Morrill Act. The first Morrill Act passed in 1862 created colleges that mostly catered to white students and did not provide access to African-Americans, and even now, Black students are suing states over funding disparities between land-grant institutions.

The failure of affirmative action is another hurdle to Black students in higher education.

“[The Supreme Court decision] ignores the history in our country about discrimination, about the reasons why our HBCUs exist. They exist because our Black and brown people, underrepresented people, did not have opportunities to achieve education,” Breaux said. “They weren’t allowed to enroll in the predominantly white institutions. To see once again that we’re ignoring that racism and disparities still exist in this country … takes us backwards.”

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.