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National Association of Black Journalists convention panel examines the state of HBCUs

Educators and attendees discuss effects of rulings on student loan forgiveness, end of affirmative action in college admissions

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – During the 2023 National Association of Black Journalists convention, journalists and educators explored the future of historically Black colleges and universities.

Jackson State University hosted a panel discussion about how the Supreme Court decision issued in June that blocked President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program will affect the nation’s 107 HBCUs.

“The Supreme Court decision will hurt the average African American,” said Walter A. Brown, executive director of Jackson State’s Executive Ph.D. in Urban Higher Education program. “Most students who want to attend college rely on assistance from the government.”

In 2022, the Century Foundation, an independent think tank, reported HBCU students take on more loan debt to finish college than other students, making the Supreme Court’s decision especially detrimental for students at Black colleges.

Despite the ruling, HBCU students attending the convention were optimistic about the state and future of Black colleges.

“It’ll definitely hurt some pockets,” said Renee Washington, a rising senior at Alabama A&M University. “But ultimately, I think HBCUs will be fine. Students’ interest in these universities [HBCUs] is higher than ever. Students may have to take out more loans, but the HBCU experience is 100% worth any amount of money needed to finish college.”

During the panel discussion, experts also talked about the continued relevance of HBCUs and how they can continue to grow.

Jackson State’s Brown said the curriculum of the Executive Ph.D. in Urban Higher Education program, which is observing its 20th anniversary this year, helps prepare individuals to take positions of authority at HBCUs.

“The purpose of our program is to provide scholarship and skill set to people who want to take a leadership position within our education,” Brown said. “These leadership positions deal with being vice presidents and presidents, key positions that really help to move HBCUs forward.”

Melva K. Williams, president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University in Texas and a graduate of the Jackson State Ph.D. program, said the media plays an integral role in the growth of HBCUs and suggested journalists use their platforms to advocate for Black colleges.

“If you want to see HBCUs grow, tell our positive stories,” Williams said. “I know everybody has to have a TMZ moment, but when you can communicate to the masses, take the opportunity to lift HBCUs. You [journalists] are in a position of power.”

George French, president of Clark Atlanta University, said there wouldn’t be a Black middle class if it weren’t for HBCUs. 

“It’s not even called into question if we’re relevant now. The question is how relevant are we,” French said. “I look around this conference and see an abundance of HBCU students. We have so much to be proud of.”

According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, HBCUs were created in the early 19th century after African American students were unwelcome at institutions of higher education.

Convention attendees said HBCUs remain vital today because they teach previously inaccessible information to Black students.

“HBCUs are increasingly becoming more important,” said Auzzy Byrdsell, a rising senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta. “When you look at education, HBCUs mean a lot to Black students because they teach us so much about ourselves and our history.”

Interest in historically Black colleges and universities surged following the racial justice protests in 2020 sparked by the murder of George Floyd while in police custody, and the increased recognition also led to a spike in donations.

Delaware State University received $20 million in 2020 from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott. That donation was part of Scott’s larger $560 million donation to HBCUs including Morgan State, Dillard, Claflin and Clark Atlanta universities.

Even before the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in the college admissions process in June, HBCUs also saw a significant jump in applications

According to Morgan State’s website, in the spring of 2021 the university received more than 14,600 undergraduate applications for the fall semester, a 58.5% increase over the total number received in 2019. Spelman College also experienced a surge in applicants in 2021, when the university received more than 11,000 applications, a 20% increase from the previous year. 

North Carolina A&T State University, the largest HBCU in the country in terms of enrollment, set a record in 2022 by admitting 13,487 students.

“Some of the best journalists, doctors and engineers come from HBCUs,” said Jordan Davis, a 2023 graduate of North Carolina A&T. “Even enrollment is higher than it’s ever been. People care about what’s happening at these universities [HBCUs] and I believe that won’t change anytime soon. The only way HBCUs can go is up.”

Kamryn Jackson, a 2024 Rhoden Fellow, is a senior multimedia journalism major from Prince George’s County, Maryland. In the fall she will serve as the managing editor of The A&T Register and president of Associated Sports Press Editors. Her favorite sport to play is volleyball, and her favorite sport to watch is basketball.