Jan 23, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Harris' rise illustrates the evolution of HBCUs

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris hugs Mara Peoples, Executive Vice President of the Howard University Student Association, beside Amos Jackson III, Executive President

Kamala Harris hugs Mara Peoples, Executive Vice President of the Howard University Student Association, beside Amos Jackson III, Executive President at Howard University. Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

Vice President Kamala Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, is the first graduate of a historically Black college or university to enter the White House — and her background reflects the changing demographics at HBCUs.

Why it matters: Harris‘ accession highlights the often overlooked legacy of HBCUs, which have educated Black students for generations. Today, the schools also attract Latino and Asian American students, as well as students from immigrant families, amid a transforming nation.

By the numbers: Non-Black students make up around a fourth of HBCUs’ student populations, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

  • In 1976, non-Black students were only 15% of the HBCU student population.
  • Today, 25% of students at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University are Hispanic, many coming from South Texas.
  • There are 101 HBCUs in the U.S. that were founded before 1964, when segregation laws prevented Black students from attending most schools.

"Because Kamala is elected, no one is going to tell me anymore I can't do something because I graduated from an HBCU. Not a single soul," said Erika Neal, a California health care worker and recent graduate of Virginia State University,

  • She said she was told repeatedly that her HBCU political science degree wouldn't get her anywhere.

Between the lines: HBCU officials say the institutions' survival rests on recruiting students like Harris, who graduated from Howard University in 1986, and attracting a more diverse student body to stave off enrollment declines.

  • The number of HBCU students fell from 327,000 in 2010 to 292,000 in 2018.

What they’re saying: "Latinx students and immigrant students see Black schools as a safe space with the rise of Fascism and xenophobia," said Patricia Williams Lessane, associate vice president for academic affairs at Morgan State University.

  • Lessane said HBCU faculty and administration also tend to be more diverse than traditional mainstream colleges, making all students of color feel welcome.
  • "HBCU is a model of how diversity should be done in this country."

The intrigue: The jump in enrollment from non-Black students of color comes as the nation's public schools return to pre-Civil Rights Movement segregation levels, placing Latino and Black students together.

  • Black teachers who are HBCU graduates are mentoring some Latino students and letting them know HBCUs are options, said Melanye Price, Endowed Professor of Political Science at Prairie View A&M University.
  • Latino and Asian American students then embrace the focus on Black life and history at HBCUs, Price said.
  • "It encourages them and empowers them to think about their own racial experience, their own history...We help them fill in their part of the story," Price said.

Yes, but: Some fear the rapid increase of non-Black students in HBCUs might change original missions away from helping Black students.

  • Maurice Mitchell, director of the Working Families Party and a Howard graduate, said it's a real concern, especially because HBCUs for years have stressed that students have a greater calling to help the Black community.

"At the same time, I'm encouraged because students are seeking out HBCUs. They aren't stumbling upon them," Mitchell said.

Go deeper