Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams played a pivotal role in the 2020 election. And they are all HBCU graduates. Here's why these colleges are positive for Black success.

By Dontaira Terrell
January 11, 2021
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Credit: Illustration by Emma Darvick; Getty Images (7).

Black women played a pivotal role in the outcome of the 2020 election. Of course, that includes Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to gain the title.

In addition to Harris, both Stacey Abrams, a voting rights activist and former Democratic minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, and the current mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, are being widely recognized. Their successful efforts to register new voters, ensure election integrity, encourage voters to the polls, and end voter suppression in Georgia helped flip the swing state blue.

All three women also share another distinct commonality: They are proud graduates of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Howard University (Harris), Spelman College (Abrams), and Florida A&M University (Bottoms).

HBCUs were founded in the 1800s with the first being Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, established in 1837. "Most of these historical institutions were founded in the United States's southern region, where there was limited access to quality education for African American students," says Kenyatta Randall, director of talent acquisition and recruitment at Grambling State University, an HBCU in Louisiana.

With the value and purpose of higher education made clear, HBCUs created opportunities for Black men and women who, by law, were once denied a traditional form of education. "Slavery in the United States did not end until 1865, and a vast majority of African Americans—both free and enslaved—were illiterate," Randall points out. These schools began providing an empowering envi­ronment and space for Black students to embrace their racial identity. They also served as a haven for them to uphold a history of scholarship and obtain professional skills training.

But more than 180 years since their inception, many still wonder: Are HBCUs still necessary? The short answer is yes.

Why HBCUs Are Needed

HBCUs play a crucial role in helping to advance our country's future, especially in fields where more Black professionals are greatly needed. For example, Black doctors play a tremendous role in helping close the gap in racial health disparities among Black patients and saving Black lives and HBCUs play a fundamental role in educating Black physicians. Statistics shows 70 percent of Black physicians and dentists earned HBCU degrees.

That's not all: The campus environment cultivates success, and HBCUs are considered the best buy in education, with the median tuition costs about 30 percent less than other equivalent institutions. Most importantly, HBCUs have continually been a catalyst for change, liberty, and equality in the progression toward freedom and Black liberation within the United States.

While college enrollment has been down across the country, HBCUs enrollment declines during the 2018-19 school year can be concerning. However, HBCUs didn't see as significant decreases as others, with some HBCUs even reporting growth with higher enrollment rates during the pandemic than other institutions.

Myths About HBCUs

For many years false truths and misinformation have circulated, challenging the excellence of the rich cultural history, education, and overall merit of the Black college experience. From a lack of diversity and preparation for postgraduate life to being academically inferior, critics and some policymakers have argued that HBCUs do not prepare individuals for the real world.

However, the Gallup-USA Funds Minority College Graduates Report stated HBCU alumni maintain a general satisfaction of their collegiate experience by referencing postgraduate successes across a full-spectrum analysis. This includes the elements of well-being from economic progress to employee engagement, community commitment, purpose-driven ideologies, and social prosperity.

With more than 100 HBCUs to consider, it's never too early to educate and empower your children to start thinking about college and the power of HBCUs. "Despite historical underfunding, inadequate endowments, and biased media messaging, HBCUs have still been able to achieve disproportionate outcomes for Black students," says LaToya Russell Owens, Ph.D., director of learning and evaluation for the UNCF Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute.

Randall agrees. "Many of these institutions are still fully operating and producing high achieving graduates today,” she says. “HBCUs hold great legacies of esteemed leaders, politicians, scientists, engineers, doctors, entertainers, and athletes. The HBCU experience has deep cultural traditions extending outside of the classroom.”

The Bottom Line

These institutions of higher education helped define the careers of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and are the places that nurtured them into the women they are today. This presidential election was a defining moment not solely for Black history, but also American history and the narrative around HBCUs.

Providing representation and reaffirming the power and significance of the role HBCUs play in preparation for one's future and today's educational landscape is important as they help to inspire the next generation of greatness.

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