Cory Roscoe knew he wanted to go to a historically black college. The Baltimore native wanted a smaller classroom experience so he could get to know his professors and classmates.
“The HBCU, it feel like family,” Roscoe said. “It feel like everyone that you meet is genuine and they want to help you get by, as opposed to at a (predominantly white institution) you might be in a class with 40 to 50 people and nobody even know your name, you’re just there.”
Since he started attending Morgan, the junior business major has noticed more Morgan State stickers around the city, indicating a strong network of alumni.
“There’s a lot of people that have degrees, but they don’t get no jobs because they didn’t make no connections and get a chance to meet people,” Roscoe said. “I feel like at a HBCU, everybody’s family and more genuine. So the more you meet people the more you might find somebody to help you down the line.”
Historically black colleges and universities have long occupied a unique place in the nation’s educational landscape.
“HBCUs historically have been educating the very best and engaging those that need the most work,” said Dr. Crystal deGregory, an historian and executive editor of HBCU story. In addition to top students, schools take “D students to B minus,” she said.
At a time of increased pressures on all higher education institutions, how are HBCUs seeking to evolve and survive?
Leaders at Maryland’s HBCUs say they are using a variety of strategies, from partnering with community colleges to sharpening their curricula to diversifying their student populations. In particular, they say, they’re focusing on what makes them unique.
“When you talk about historically black colleges and universities, you have to understand that they are not a monolith,” said Dr. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University. The phrase historically black colleges and universities can apply to large land-grant universities, research institutions and small liberal arts schools, public or private.
“You have to step back and determine what are you good at and what are you better at than anyone, anywhere,” Wilson said.
At Morgan State, that means focusing on the university’s status as a “comprehensive public urban research university,” Wilson said.
The university, Maryland’s largest HBCU, has earned a foothold as a public research institution with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics while also providing programs in public health, education and criminal justice.
“We are positioning (the university) to play an even greater role in economic development,” Wilson said, by spurring the development of small businesses.
Historically black colleges and universities generally are those that were established before 1964 with their primary mission to educate black Americans. There are 100 HBCUs in 19 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.
While enrollment at HBCUs has increased by 32 percent between 1976 and 2014, that growth has lagged behind all institutions combined, which have experienced an 84 percent surge in enrollment during that time, the center said.
In response to the ferocious competition among higher education institutions, some states in the South have attempted to merge their HUCUs, either with each other or with traditionally white universities.
While mergers in Louisiana and Mississippi were ultimately rejected, last year Georgia merged historically black Albany State University and nearby Darton State College.
HBCUs also have broadened their enrollment base. In 2014, non-black students made up 21 percent of enrollment at HBCUs, up from 15 percent in 1976, according to federal education data.
Across Baltimore from Morgan State, Coppin State University has adapted a new tactic to shore up flagging graduation rates.
A 2013 University System of Maryland report suggested that Coppin State should concentrate on admitting more transfers from two-year colleges, higher-achieving freshmen and adult learners.
Mike Lurie, a spokesperson for the University of Maryland System, said there have been inherent challenges at Coppin State, including improving the school’s six-year graduation rate, which was at 15.7 percent in 2014. But officials are optimistic that recruiting more students from community colleges will pay off.
Renée Bowen, a doctoral student in community college leadership at Morgan State, transferred to Coppin from community college. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, she didn’t hear about HBCUs until she attended Coppin, but she’s embraced the familial atmosphere.
“Transferring from a community college to an HBCU, it felt like family, it felt like home,” Bowen said. “You’re more likely to fit in and feel more comfortable.”
At the University of Maryland System, there’s an importance to keeping HBCUs as thriving institutions, Lurie said. Other historically black schools in the system include Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
Last fall, Bowie State welcomed its largest full-time freshman class yet, and it has increased the number of graduates over the last six years.
“I really feel that the areas that we have given attention to during my leadership that any public institution of our size and in a market like ours would have faced,” said Dr. Mickey Burnim, the school’s president.
In a time when tax dollars cannot be relied on as the sole source of income for a public university, schools have to boost their enrollment and fundraising, he said. And they have to show their school is succeeding.
“Focus on building the university culture so that everyone is thinking about results,” Burnim said he’d advise other presidents. “Build a culture that focuses on more student success.”
Burnim has undertaken initiatives to beautify the campus and make the school more visible in the community, hoping to increase its competitiveness in the region. During his tenure as president, the school has built a new student center to replace one that had been around since the 1950s.
He has also appeared before community groups, such as the Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce, to sell the school as a quality option.
But these sales pitches can be tougher with the HBCU label, he said.
“Some people still see us in that light, when that was never the case. We have always been open to students of all ethnicities and backgrounds,” Burnim said. “It is tougher for us in terms of raising money, especially from private sources, because many of our graduates weren’t in high-paying positions.”
Morgan’s Wilson said his university has to aggressively recruit students and to partner with high schools and other institutions.
Last week, the school announced it had received two grants to help teach STEM courses in Baltimore City Public Schools. The work could help better teach minority and disadvantaged students to get excited about the science and technology fields.
Wilson said a lot of these students have been discouraged from pursuing STEM fields while in high school, or even when they get to college.
“You have to, as an urban university, expand your influence … to make sure that young people are not turned off of college and STEM disciplines,” he said.
He touted the school’s success at producing electrical engineers and a $28 million lab agreement with NASA.
Morgan State has programs in place to get students in grades K-12 excited about STEM. One program Wilson discussed has middle school boys learning coding, algebra and design. By the end of the class, students have to write a program and have a proof of concept.
These programs help people from urban environments demystify the process of becoming engineers, Wilson said.
Wilson said it’s important to remember that the term HBCU isn’t a mandate, but a descriptor.
“That phrase came about through federal legislation for funding purposes,” he said.
“Morgan is an institution that has been open to everyone, is open to everyone and will be open to everyone.”