Examining Institutional Effectiveness at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) by Tyra Wheeler-Zubia

As we close out Black History Month in the United States of America this year, I wanted to share some insights regarding the effectiveness of HBCUs. It has been such a treasure to observe increased discussion about HBCUs during recent months and to see narratives on how these institutions are key players in supporting the long-term success of African Americans. We saw how the media reported on a plethora of donations made by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott to a wide range of higher education institutions to include more than a half-billion dollars gifted to HBCUs in 2020 (Anderson and Lumpkin, 2020). We witnessed the attention to how HBCUs can truly position students for success when many soon learned that Kamala Harris, the first female and person of African, Jamaican, and South Asian ancestry to become Vice President of the United States of America, received her undergraduate degree from Howard University (U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, 2021). While African American communities tend to be well-versed on the benefits of attending an HBCU, it’s not truly clear whether the general population understands or acknowledges their value, purpose, and the critical need for continuance even in this day and age. The role of HBCUs in supporting African American students along the pathway to receive their degree and placement in the workforce has been evident for almost 200 years (Startz, 2021).  

During the post-Civil War period, there were public policies in place that prevented African Americans from educational opportunities in different parts of the country. Before the Civil War, there was no structured higher education system in place for these students. The first higher education institution for African Americans was called ‘The Institute for Colored Youth’ with Cheyney University, located in Pennsylvania, established in 1837. Two additional institutions were founded with Lincoln University established in Pennsylvania in 1854 and Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1856. Their initial purpose was to serve elementary and secondary students. They would later provide postsecondary programs during the early 1900s with additional institutions founded during this time (Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 2021). The term historically black college and university (HBCU) was finally defined through the amended Higher Education Act of 1965 (White House Initiative, 2021).

In recent years, regional accreditors have assigned assessment and institutional research practices as the approach to demonstrate effectiveness. While the field has embraced this direction by conceptualizing institutional effectiveness and facilitating these practices, it is easy to see that the concept or practice of institutional effectiveness is not the same across all institutions. The variation in culture, geography, environment, size, populations served, type, academic and professional program offerings, and other elements at higher education institutions make it quite difficult to package institutional effectiveness for replication in multiple settings. Institutions can rather work collectively within their environments, colleagues, and stakeholders to determine how institutional effectiveness can lend itself to the desired outcomes that are appropriate for the mission and vision of the institution.

It’s rather interesting to make sense of the research studies that have been conducted on HBCUs over the last 20 years. While reports on positive success outcomes for African American students who attend HBCUs continue to be prevalent in many studies, some conclude that these institutions need development in leadership, diversity in program offerings, strategic planning for accreditation maintenance, and enhanced financial management operations. Therefore, what necessities within institutional effectiveness should be considered when an institution appears to be producing the intended outcomes? In light of this observation, the initial hope here was to examine how HBCUs carry out tangible practices of institutional effectiveness by exploring practices in assessment, strategic planning, and the use of institutional research at these institutions. However, after reviewing the literature, it perhaps makes more sense to summarize how HBCUs exhibit their effectiveness and where they can possibly use elements of institutional effectiveness to meet the needs of the whole institution to exhibit not only student success but institutional success as well. This can be observed in the examples below:

  1. HBCUs tend to have more struggles with financial practices when compared to their counterparts. This is typically because they receive less revenue from student tuition, have more students attending that are first-generation and low income, have minimal donations, and receive limited funding from states. Yet despite this, they still produce 1 out of 8 undergraduate degrees earned by African American students (Startz, 2021). Therefore, suitable and formal strategies are needed for HBCUs to maintain financial stability.

  2. HBCUs have trained three-fourths of all African Americans with doctorate degrees, three-fourths of all African Americans in the armed forces, and four-fifths of all African American judges and are leading in conferring baccalaureate degrees to African Americans in science, technology, engineering, and math (Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 2021). Therefore, it is essential for these institutions to maintain quality academic program offerings and professional and regional accreditation and to consider diversity in the delivery of programs and student support services.

  3. While many HBCUs lack the resources commonly offered at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), HBCUs continue to maintain cultural traditions in mentoring and in providing support to get students admitted, enrolled, retained, and graduated. It would also serve HBCUs well to enhance their marketing approaches to build partnerships, maintain connections with alumni and external colleagues, and promote capabilities that can open the door to acquiring new resources.

While much of the above is easier said than done for many HBCUs, one can acknowledge that many institutions in the current times are facing similar struggles and challenges. However, with HBCUs being such key players in producing African American graduates who will go on to be valuable contributors to our society and workforce, it’s more than appropriate for HBCUs to define effectiveness in their own way, based on a tradition that has served African American persons for many years. HBCUs can further position themselves for long-term success by developing institutional effectiveness practices that can assist them in not only meeting the needs of students, but in also addressing how they can meet the needs of an ever-changing society.

After reading this piece, if you were advising an HBCU, how might you help define institutional effectiveness? What measures might you suggest?

What unique features of measures of institutional effectiveness carry to other institutions designed to serve particular populations of students? For example, the Tribal Colleges and Universities, or Hispanic Serving Institutions might also have variations.

We look forward to reviewing your comments on the AHEE ListServ. To join the AHEE ListServ, navigate to ahee.simplelists.com and follow the instructions.


Anderson, N. & Lumpkin, L. (2020). ‘Transformational’: MacKenzie Scott’s gifts to HBCUs, other Colleges Surpass $800 million. Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/mackenzie-scott-hbcu-donations/2020/12/17/0ce9ef5a-406f-11eb-8db8-395dedaaa036_story.html

Historically black colleges and universities and higher Education Desegregation. (2020). Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/hq9511.html

Startz, D. (2021). When it comes to student success, HBCUs do more with less [Web blog post]. Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2021/01/18/when-it-comes-to-student-success-hbcus-do-more-with-less/

U.S. Embassy in Belgrade (2021). Kamala Harris: America’s next Vice President. Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://rs.usembassy.gov/kamala-harris-americas-next-vice-president/

White house initiative on historically black colleges and universities. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://sites.ed.gov/whhbcu/one-hundred-and-five-historically-black-colleges-and-universities/