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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

HBCUs Seek To Distinguish Themselves In Competition For Students

North Carolina has one of the highest numbers of historically black colleges and universities in the country. Over the past few years many of their enrollment numbers have declined. There are multiple reasons for that. They include tighter requirements on some federal loans, higher admissions standards, and competition from schools that were long closed to African Americans. The history and future of HBCUs are the subject of Thursday's Charlotte Talks.

In this story, WFAE's Lisa Worf looks at how the state’s public and private HBCUs are trying to distinguish themselves.

Winston-Salem State University trained nurses in the 1950s to staff the city’s African American hospitals. Now the school is part of the UNC system and sends its graduates to hospitals all over the state. 

The school’s student body is somewhat different from those early days. Only 72 percent of students are African American. Not all of them sought out Winston-Salem State because it’s a historically black school.

Senior Frederick Huffin had other things on his mind.  

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
Frederick Huffin will graduate in a couple weeks. He already has a nursing job lined up.

“It was local.  It was in my community.  It was accessible and cost-effective, so I came here. Plus, we have one of the top nursing programs in the state,” says Huffin. 

That’s the type of pitch HBCUs need to be able to make says Phillip Clay. He’s an urban planner and former chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He wrote a report on how historically black schools can cope with funding challenges and competition for students. 

“They will survive to the extent that they can sharpen their case for why students should attend them, meaning they should have programs that reflect some excellence, link to the job market, that are pre-professional,” says Clay. 

North Carolina’s five public HBCU's are trying to carve out niches for themselves. North Carolina A&T has long been known for its engineering program and North Carolina Central for its law school. Fayetteville State caters to veterans and Elizabeth City State has an aviation science program.     

“The point is that when you build or rebuild a school around some areas of excellence, there’s no reason for black students to feel that they will somehow suffer because they go to an HBCU,” says Clay. 

For most of their history, HBCUs did not have the same access to resources as other schools.  Most historically black colleges were founded in the southeast after the Civil War. They prepared African Americans, who were barred entry from white colleges, for leadership and professional roles. 

These schools assumed their students would be the first in their families to attend college and made sure to combine academic rigor with plenty of support. HBCUs still pride themselves on embracing such students, no matter the race.

But race does shape the dynamics of the campuses. Winston-Salem State student Jasmine Weaks is glad she attends an HBCU. 

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
Jasmine Weaks went to a mostly white high school. She sought out an historically black school.

“That was my main drive when I first started looking at schools just to be around more black people. But now that I’m actually at an HBCU, I realize it’s not so much about being around the same people. It’s about being around the same people who know the same struggles you know,” says Weaks. 

Winston-Salem State has a lot of spirit. Each spring the school holds a week-long celebration called Ramfest. A DJ plays every afternoon. On this day, student modeling troupes compete.

Weaks says some of her friends get the wrong idea about historically black schools.

“Honestly, my black friends say they don’t want to go to go to an HBCU because there’s too many black people….Unfortunately it has been stereotyped and assigned to black people that we’re loud and ghetto and ratchet, which everyone is all of those things at some point in time. I guess, they feel it wouldn’t be a good environment for them,” says Weaks. 

Forty years ago, one-third of black college graduates attended HBCUs. Now, only one-sixth do. Winston-Salem State’s enrollment has dropped 18 percent over the past six years. Many of the state’s historically black schools have seen some kind of decline during that time. 

The schools lost students with the tightening of requirements for some federal loans. The UNC system also increased its academic standards after pushing its HBCUs to expand rapidly. Historically black schools face competition from not just other universities, but also community colleges.

Johnson C Smith’s Chief Operating Officer Elfred Anthony Pinkard says the school has started aggressively recruiting Latino students.

“We’ve had a strategic and very intentional outreach to that community. It has borne fruit in the number of students who have come here and have had wonderful experiences,” says Pinkard. 

JCSU started in Charlotte as a teachers college in the late 1860s. But school leaders recently decided to close the education department because it attracted only a few students. With the help of the Duke Endowment, Smith is finishing up construction on a new center for science and technology. 

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
Johnson C Smith's new STEM center will soon open.

“We feel we’re strong in the sciences and we’re also looking at what we call new market majors. We have a program that we’re developing in cyber security, renewable energy, bioinformatics. Those we feel are programs of the future,” says Pinkard.   

The success of that future will be judged on how many students stand in line for that education, but also how many graduate. The state’s five public historically black schools have an average graduation rate of 44 percent, compared to 63 percent across the UNC system.  School leaders say that happens when you take chances on students, many of them the first in their families to go to college. Nonetheless, they agree this number has to improve.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.