HBCUs drawing on creativity, community during COVID-19 crisis

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), long underfunded and lacking the massive endowments of some predominantly white institutions, are well-versed in making the most of limited resources. That mindset—combined with a focus on community-building—has enabled HBCUs to find creative ways to support their students during the COVID-19 pandemic, ZORA reports. 

This is especially true of smaller HBCUs, like Austin, Texas-based Huston-Tillotson University, which don’t typically receive the level of attention or donations attracted by larger HBCUs like Howard University and Morehouse College. 

“Many institutions are having struggles as a result of COVID-19. That’s every term for us,” Huston-Tillotson President Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette told ZORA. “The pandemic is making it harder, because our communities are hit economically. So, [the struggle] is compounded, but it’s not new. We’ve been operating like this, in my case for 145 years, and still staying strong.” 

Related: Big philanthropic investments a bright spot for HBCUs amid financial uncertainty worsened by pandemic >

Hands-on approach to meeting student needs

With just 1,100 students, Huston-Tillotson has been attuned to individual needs during the coronavirus pandemic, spending around $1.8 million on WiFi hotspots, tablets, and software to support students during remote learning. And given that 70 percent of HBCU students come from low-income households, housing and food insecurity also have been top of mind.  

“Presidents at our institutions knew the status of the most vulnerable of their student populations,” says Dr. Latoya Owens, director of learning and evaluation for the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at the United Negro College Fund. “They knew there were students that they would have to buy plane tickets. They saw students to the airport and bus stations. There were students from very rural populations, and they didn’t send them home without technology.”

Innovating with creative approaches, partnerships

Even with all the challenges of this moment, it’s crucial not to “become trapped in a scarcity mindset,” says Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of the small, Dallas-based HBCU Paul Quinn College. “Our students have spent their lives being told how their lives are inadequate because of the money they don’t have.” 

He adds that Paul Quinn’s “entire experience this last 13 years is an example of what you can do with discipline, creativity, and innovation.” Years ago, the school shuttered its football program to keep its doors open, and uses its former football field as an organic farm to sell produce for scholarship money and address the local food desert. Sorrell also spearheaded this past spring’s virtual national HBCU commencement celebration, at which former President Barack Obama addressed students from 78 HBCUs. 

Some institutions also are forging corporate partnerships to expand their academic offerings. Huston-Tillotson, for instance, is working with companies like Tesla and Apple to give students internship opportunities and scholarships. 

‘Our students are different’

HBCUs’ emphasis on fostering a tight-knit community also appears to be helping with adherence to public health guidelines. Leaders have been reporting lower rates of coronavirus infections on HBCU campuses compared with many predominantly white institutions and stronger student compliance. Todd Simmons, associate vice chancellor for university relations at North Carolina A&T State University, the nation’s largest HBCU, believes that students of color attending HBCUs are keenly aware of the challenges the pandemic poses in their communities. 

“Our students are different because they’re facing two different threats, COVID and the racial reckoning,” Simmons told Inside Higher Ed. “They are constantly seeing that play out, and they don’t know if the government has their back, so there’s a higher premium for them to protect themselves and each other to ensure they don’t fall victims to illness or violence.”

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