The route to work is always the same. Leave the highway and turn right on Sandra Bland Parkway. Follow it to its end, past the location where a state trooper stopped Bland’s car—the confrontation that would lead to her arrest and ultimately her death—and drive onto the campus of Texas’s Prairie View A&M University, one of 101 historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Once there, I see what Bland must have seen on her first day of college, and what I saw on the first day of mine nearly 30 years ago: a beautiful campus with lush oaks and stately buildings that tell the story of a people whose freedom has been forged in the face of injustice and whose joy is political resistance.
Every time I make this drive, now as a professor, I am reminded that the first thing our ancestors did when they were emancipated was erect institutions of higher learning. These campuses house and nurture their most important legacy—the committed pursuit of knowledge and freedom, first imagined and then made real for our children. HBCUs remind us all that Black ingenuity is more resilient than white supremacy.
But today, many of these colleges are woefully under-resourced, having experienced the steepest declines in federal funding per student between 2003 and 2015. They are often ignored by the big philanthropic donors; their endowments are 70 percent smaller than those of non-HBCUs. All of this, despite the work they do to change the intellectual and financial trajectory of their students, who are often underserved in K–12 schools. HBCUs represent 3 percent of the nation’s colleges, but graduate about 20 percent of all Black undergrads, and 25 percent of those with STEM degrees. Nearly 75 percent of HBCU students are eligible for Pell Grants, and over half are first-generation college students—yet HBCUs are better at retaining this population than non-HBCUs.