UNCF’s (United Negro College Fund) iconic, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” advertising campaign remains the gold-standard for shining light on the urgency of investing in Black colleges and universities.
No nation, the stories in the campaign reminded us, can be great if it leaves behind a large portion of its residents. More than 40 years later, the need for sustained investment in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) remains as great as ever.
With the change in presidential administrations, HBCUs have once again returned to the national conversation, with some openly questioning the need for such institutions, particularly in the face of advances over the past several decades. The conversation is not new and the answer has not changed.
We need HBCU’s to continue to exist and they need all of us helping to support their coffers and make the case to decision-makers about the continued value they provide.
HBCUs represent only three percent of all two- and four-year U.S. colleges and universities, but they enroll 10 percent of all African American undergraduates. They produce 17 percent of all African American college graduates and generate 24 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields earned by African Americans annually, according to UNCF’s Patterson Research Institute.
Part of the reason is that Black graduates of HBCUs are significantly more likely to have felt supported while in college, according to 2015 data from an ongoing Gallup-Purdue University study.
But statistics are only part of the story. HBCUs have produced influential Americans including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, filmmaker Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey and many other business, civic leaders and entrepreneurs.
On campuses around the nation, parents beamed last month as newly minted graduates of HBCUs set out to make names for themselves and to fulfill their dreams.
At Howard University, my alma mater, I witnessed U.S. Senator Kamala Harris remind graduates that the world will not always be welcoming and that they have a duty to serve.
“That is your duty—the duty of your degree,” Harris said. “That is the charge of a Howard graduate. So whatever you plan to do next—whether you want to design the latest app or cure cancer or run a business. Whether you’re going to be a dentist, a lawyer, a teacher, or an accountant—let your guiding principle be truth and service. At a time when there are Americans—disproportionately Black and brown men—trapped in a broken system of mass incarceration… peak truth—and serve.”
It is advice that we should also—no matter our age—aspire to. And one truth is surely that the nation’s HBCUs are as relevant and necessary now as when some of them were founded over 150 years ago. These institutions were an antidote to the racist policies that, in some cases, banned educating Black students.
At a time where college costs are going up, and attacks on Black students on predominantly White campuses are on the rise, the need for Black colleges is greater than ever. As a government, we have to continue to ensure that funding is there to keep this pipeline going. And as private citizens, we have to open our wallets to ensure the long-term viability of the institutions that are working for us and our communities.
Rushern Baker, a graduate of Howard University, is the county executive in Prince George’s County, Maryland.