A new research brief from the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers University asserts, “It can be argued that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are experiencing a renaissance in terms of their enrollment of black students.” I found this startling, since for years HBCU enrollments have trended downward. Moreover, overall enrollments are in decline, so some further decline in HBCU enrollment is expected. The authors of the Rutgers study, Janelle Williams and Robert Palmer, hypothesize that increases in race-related incidents, which they call the “Missouri Effect” (after significant race-related protests at the University of Missouri) have led black students to seek the welcoming environment of HBCUs –the ultimate “safe spaces” for African-Americans. 

This led me to explore the underlying enrollment data as published by the U.S. Department of Education in the Digest of Education Statistics. Sure enough, the latest reported data (2017-2018) show total enrollments rose from 292,083 the previous year to 298,138, an increase of 2.1%. But it was not really that much of an upsurge in enrollment from black students fleeing to the congenial environment of HBCUs. Fully 45% of the HBCU enrollment growth came from increasing numbers of non-black students. Indeed, the number of black male students actually declined.

Was 2017-18 a fluke? I went back seven years, to 2010-11. From 2010 to 2017, total HBCU enrollment fell by more than 28,000, or about 9%. But that statistic disguises two other phenomena. First, black enrollment at the HBCUs fell far more, over 39,000 or nearly 15 %. Second, non-black enrollment grew substantially, rising more than 17%. Historically black colleges are becoming decidedly less black. Now nearly one-fourth of students at HBCUs are not African-American.

The Rutgers study’s hypothesis is clearly not supported–if anything, longer term, black students are fleeing HBCUs. There is no evidence of a rising fear of attending predominantly white universities by African-American students. Like whites, blacks are increasingly just saying no to college itself–from 2010 to 2017, white enrollment in all higher education fell 17.37%, similar to the black decline of 16.23%. The real ethnic story is the explosive growth in Hispanic enrollments in American universities. Between 2010 and 2017, they rose by 28.8% And Asian enrollments increased, albeit by a more modest 5%. 

All of this is reminds me of a keynote address I gave at the National Press Club in Washington several years ago to the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), which calls itself “The voice for blacks in higher education.” My remarks were probably perceived by the audience to be the most controversial of any I have given in more than 50 years of public speaking. I said that the HBCUs were inevitably facing a declining market share. Black students increasingly are recruited by universities with predominantly white student bodies. Wealthier established universities with generally superior academic reputations were buying black students off with large scholarships, depleting numbers at the HBCUs. I suggested that the HBCUs needed to evolve, becoming less focused on racial identity, and opening up to potential first generation college students of all races and ethnicities.  Having a white guy suggest that the HBCUs alter their admissions policies and dilute their perception of their mission was insulting to some, but I suggested that it was in the best interests of those institutions. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that some HBCUs did exactly what I recommended, for example luring more Hispanic students to matriculate at their schools, explaining much of the surging non-black enrollment at HBCUs.

To me, this is another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Society becomes much more concerned about the racial and ethnic composition of collegiate student bodies, leading to a near obsession with “diversity and inclusion.” Wealthy elite colleges target high schools with large minority populations, and offer large scholarships to eligible potential students. Lured by money and the greater prestige and postgraduate earnings opportunities of top flight but predominantly white schools, many black students take the opportunity.

Will this trend continue? Who knows? My guess is that it will. The federal government earmarks large sums for HBCUs, and perhaps clever non-black students will get scholarships promoting diversity by enrolling in HBCUs that, ironically, themselves will diversify by becoming less black.