A Bad Week For HBCUs in National Media

Recent coverage of historically Black colleges and universities tells dramatically different stories about how well the sector is doing heading into the fall semester and sheds new light on the need for reporters who actually understand higher education and HBCUs in a meaningful way.

One story from Yahoo! News suggests that HBCUs are having an identity crisis because of increasing non-Black student enrollment. The example for the article’s premise; West Virginia State University, one of a handful of HBCUs with predominantly non-Black student enrollment.

Enrollment at HBCUs over the decades has increasingly included non-Black students, federal data shows.

  • In 2018, non-Black students were 24% of enrollment at HBCUs, compared with 15% in 1976.

  • As HBCUs sought out more non-Black students, a handful — such as West Virginia State University and Bluefield State College — became predominantly white, leading to racial tensions.

Another article published by NBC’s Washington D.C. affiliate suggests that HBCUs are having an enrollment explosion, citing growth at Bowie State University and Howard University as case studies on the sector at large.

“Our enrollment continues to rise and increase year over year,” Bowie State University President Aminta Breaux said.

Bowie State expects an 8% increase in overall enrolment this fall.

“We're seeing more students from the West Coast, the Midwest, from the southern states,” Breaux said.

Howard University had a more than 15% enrollment increase last year during the pandemic. The numbers are expected to be even higher this fall.

“This has the potential to be our largest freshman class ever … certainly in the last 30 years,” Howard Provost and Chief Academic Officer Anthony Wutoh said.

This kind of coverage is the best form of disinformation that good intentions and lack of nuance can create. Both stories cite extreme examples of a premise to apply it in ways to suggest that the premise applies to all HBCUs.

It also doesn’t uncover why certain truths in both stories exist. For the identity crisis piece, the reporter doesn’t delve into data about the Black population in the state of West Virginia, which is around 4%, or population loss in the state at large; both of which can significantly impact the racial composition of WVSU’s student body.

It also constructs a dangerous narrative for HBCUs as places where discrimination or segregation should be welcomed as a remedy for racial ills of the past when the schools were never established for that reason. Imagine if this article on fraternities and sororities at the University of Alabama and their struggles to root out racism among members and to be more racially diverse, bore the same headline of having a ‘cultural identity crisis?’

The enrollment explosion piece doesn’t unpack the narrative of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan corridor, where both Bowie State and Howard are located, as one of the most affluent locales for Black professional families. It also doesn’t examine how the region is one of the most highly vaccinated in the country, which might contribute to more families feeling more comfortable sending students to campus.

Finally, there was a story late last week that reported a strike among faculty at Spelman College protesting on-campus instruction mandates.

Except, it wasn’t really a protest according to one faculty member. A thread:

The “strike” ended shortly after the local and national coverage had spread at best an incomplete story about what was happening at the institution.

These are just a few examples of how certain headlines can create a false sense of the sector’s status, but there are others. MacKenzie Scott’s millions haven’t bailed HBCUs out of financial hardship, Vice-President Kamala Harris’ HBCU ties don’t make millions of African American students want to attend HBCUs, and if HBCUs were a safe space to shield Black folks from racism, they wouldn’t be losing enrollment at a record pace.

HBCUs have enough venerability and vulnerability that it doesn’t have to be manufactured by the press. But when reporters and editors make more of a story than is required, it is extremely difficult for schools to correct the record and even harder to reach audiences with a fact check that were barely checking for the institutions in the first place.