Historically Black Colleges and Universities – known informally as HBCUs – make up just 3 percent of higher education institutions in the U.S. “Yet they produce almost 20 percent of all African American graduates and 25 percent of African American graduates” in STEM fields, asserts Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of United Negro College Fund.
More than 100 HBCUs were founded in this country between 1837 and 1964, and most are concentrated in the southeastern U.S. “Not only have they consistently produced leaders in their communities and across the nation,” says Lomax, “but HBCUs today are consistently and affordably producing the leaders of the future.”
Some of those future leaders are attending high school in Robbinsdale Area Schools (Rdale) right now. More than 20 students from Armstrong, Cooper, and Robbinsdale Academy - Highview high schools will be heading south later this month, along with four staff members, as they undertake a tour of HBCUs – the first such trip by Rdale students since 2019.
“HBCUs not only offer students a quality education but also culture and history,” according to Teach.com. “They work to foster appreciation of Black culture and help to prepare students for successful careers and lives after graduation.”
But not every Rdale student feels comfortable applying to HBCUs, says Charles Vickers, school climate and culture specialist at Armstrong and an alumnus of Morris Brown College, an HBCU in Atlanta.
“Many students are initially skeptical about HBCUs,” notes Vickers. “They assume they will not get accepted or cannot afford to attend -- because of their lack of exposure to the history and traditions of HBCUs.”
Leaders in Rdale saw the need to provide that background. They created a course that teaches the history of HBCUs and why they are such important institutions: places where “students of color feel more at home and perform better” because “they feel supported and safe,” in Dr. Lomax’s words.
Mr. Vickers concurs, saying the course and trip to HBCU campuses help “students of color to see themselves in a different light and develop their own racial identity. We try to help them feel confident and empowered to have these conversations, not only among themselves, but with other students outside our HBCU class.”
The semester-long course, which results in an elective credit, includes information not only about HBCUs but also Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs); when they were founded and by whom; and topics such as the intersection between the Civil Rights movement and the Chicano Movement. Students will be well prepared by the time they get to the HBCU campuses.
“We’re visiting Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee,” says Tony Patterson, assistant director of Achievement and Integration for Rdale and a co-leader of the class. Among the HBCUs they plan to visit are Fisk University, Tennessee State University, Alabama A&M University, Oakwood University, Mississippi Valley State University, and Rust College.
Along the way, the group hopes to find time to visit the National Museum of African American Music, the Mason Temple in Memphis, and the Emmett Till Interpretive Center.
“It’s important for us to visit sites that played a part in the Civil Rights movement,” says Patterson. “It’s one thing to learn about these places, but when you’re actually there, it’s a humbling experience – a surreal moment.
“When the students return,” he says, “they will take everything they’ve learned and create a presentation for the school board. This happens after every tour, and usually three or four students come forward to make the presentation.”
Over his years in Minnesota, Mr. Vickers has worked, and stayed in touch, with a number of high school students who went on to attend HBCUs. “They always say, ‘I made the best decision.’ None of them ever say they wish they had gone somewhere else.”