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OPINION: Here’s why chronically underfunded HBCUs are needed now more than ever

During the pandemic, these institutions are providing support, counseling and coaching

by Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis and Jamila Lyn

A recent online meme had a striking message: “A year at an HBCU can undo a K-12 experience.”

We’ve seen firsthand just how true this statement is at Benedict College, our small, historically Black college in Columbia, South Carolina. Students who have been underserved by a deeply inequitable education system often undergo a remarkable transformation at an HBCU.

They typically come from K-12 school systems that lack resources like state-of-the-art learning technology, curriculum and student supports.

Across the U.S., for example, some 1.7 million students attend a school with a sworn law enforcement officer but no school counselor — and those students are disproportionately Black.

HBCUs play a critical role in helping Black students feel at home in higher education and providing the coaching and support that all students — especially those who have been systematically disadvantaged — need to succeed.

While HBCUs make up only 3 percent of the country’s colleges and universities, they account for 22 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black graduates. The student population they serve is also significantly made up of low-income students. More than 70 percent of undergraduates at HBCUs depend on Pell Grants, and 80 percent of students also take out federal loans to attend college.

The pandemic has shown how vulnerable these institutions and their students are. It has amplified HBCUs’ underfunding by putting new strains on education budgets. And it is threatening the first-year college experiences that are so vital to student achievement — a year without orientation, in-person academic tutoring, learning communities and on-campus activities could easily threaten a student’s ability to acclimate to college life.

The federal government’s recent acknowledgment of the financial needs of HBCUs, by providing nearly one billion dollars in supplemental funding in the CARES Act, is timely and historic in nature.

We appreciate President Joe Biden’s commitment to expanding HBCU funding, but believe that sustaining that effort is just a necessary first step toward creating an equitable, accessible and diverse higher education ecosystem.

If higher education wants to help stave off what could be one of the most uneven economic recoveries in modern history for low-income, Black communities, we must find ways to make more colleges “home” for students of color, now and in the future.

That means all colleges must affirm and adopt nontraditional approaches to meeting students’ needs — including a wraparound support model that is available seven days a week and on holiday breaks.

Food insecurity and other crises don’t let up on the weekends or when campuses are closed. Recognizing that student success in the classroom hinges on student wellness, new campus partnerships among faculty, staff and administration — such as student success centers and campus health counseling centers — give students support when they most need it.

At Benedict, we’ve taken a crash course in how to recreate that on-campus support in a virtual environment, and the lessons extend beyond our institution.

Students who have been underserved by a deeply inequitable education system often undergo a remarkable transformation at an HBCU.

For example, when the reality of the pandemic hit Benedict, we weren’t sure how our students would get home safely. Many could not afford flights or bus tickets, so we raised money for student transportation and even luggage. The college set up a central command to coordinate logistics so students would have one less thing to worry about.

That kind of family-based approach — in which every problem is a relevant problem — is a hallmark of HBCUs. We were devising ways to get our students money to fix their cars or cover medical bills long before such emergency aid garnered significant attention as a student success tool, and we’ve continued to prioritize it during the pandemic.

Related: Recent racial incidents involving police are enraging students at our HBCU, and for their sake we need to open as soon as we possibly can

Second, we’ve taken ownership of the digital divide at the institutional level. Like many colleges, we’ve created a laptop loaner program to meet the needs of both on- and off-campus students by providing year-long access to reliable, new devices.

We also understand that the digital divide isn’t just about access, but also know-how. Before the pandemic, many students had never taken a course online. We felt that guiding them shouldn’t fall to individual faculty members, who already had so much on their plates.

So we devised a new summer program, not just for incoming students, but also for returning ones, to orient them to our learning management system and other digital tools.

This addressed the challenges of navigating technology head-on, while allowing us to stay connected to students throughout the summer and troubleshoot roadblocks that might prevent them from returning to classes in the fall.

Related: In dark days of coronavirus, a little kindness can help restore students’ faith

And like a number of HBCUs, heading into the 2020-21 school year, we recognized that we didn’t have the capacity to offer online many of the courses our students would need in a fully remote-learning format. We increased our participation in an online course-sharing network powered by Acadeum, which has enabled our students to access needed courses from other institutions and seamlessly count them as Benedict courses for their graduation requirements. Nearly 80 percent of the 83 students we placed in this network passed and earned credit.

We will continue to support students in this manner this year to not only ensure they make optimal progress toward their degrees but also, importantly, maintain their GPAs to stay eligible to participate in athletics and other activities as campuses begin to reopen.

These approaches are critical to supporting students moving forward. HBCUs can continue to lead the way in creating a learning experience that stands a chance of undoing years spent in an inequitable K-12 system.

Roslyn Clark Artis is president of Benedict College and Jamila Lyn is director of specialized programming.


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