Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

5 ways to improve support for HBCUs

Insights from Virginia Union University’s new study on the needs and priorities of HBCU Presidents

March 15, 2024, By Pavani Reddy, Principal, Public-Private Partnerships

This fall I had the honor to work with The Center for the Study of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) at Virginia Union University, led by Executive Director, Dr. Roderick L. Smothers, Sr., to survey and interview nearly 60 current and former HBCU presidents on their key priorities.  By the numbers, this is one of the largest and most recent reports that consolidates HBCU leaders’ invaluable wisdom, knowledge, and experience-informed perspectives.  The themes they shared serve as a resounding “call to action” for every stakeholder who believes in the unparalleled power and potential of HBCUs.

In this post I’ll highlight the top 5 requests HBCU presidents have for philanthropy, government, technical partners, and other supporters of HBCUs.

About the participants

Fifty-eight HBCU presidents and senior stakeholders participated in this study through a combination of survey responses and filmed interviews. Participating institutions range from enrollments of 100 students to more than 7,400 students and six-year graduation rates of 8% to 75% among the four-year institutions (per provisional data from IPEDS). Further, the study includes perspectives of current presidents of two historically Black community colleges, as well as one historically Black law school.

Our study represents 44 unique institutions out of a possible 104. Please note that for our analysis, we consider 104 HBCUs comprised of a combination of the Rutgers MSI List, which is derived from existing federal grants and grant applications, and the IPEDS HBCU designation, which derives its definitions from legislation that established HBCUs as a designation. While Rutgers and IPEDS agree on 101 HBCUs, IPEDS also counts Selma University and Southern University Law Center, and Rutgers additionally counts Morris Brown College.

5 ways to improve support for HBCUs

1. Understand the importance of monetary support, given the historical and continued inequities that HBCUs face

Presidents understand how much responsibility is on their shoulders to lead and operate a sustainable institution, and they acknowledge that not every problem they face can be attributed to lack of resources. That said, they want the broader higher education ecosystem to recognize that the HBCU sector as a whole—and institutions within that sector—have been uniquely underfunded while serving students and communities with great needs for support.

Thus, presidents emphasize the importance of infusion of monetary resources to address the significant gaps they experience in leading their institutions, despite their daily efforts to lead as creatively as possible. They also have a body of evidence to indicate that monetary support works. Their specific partnerships with industry (e.g., utility companies), with military bases, and with other well-resourced organizations have enabled them to grow their institutions.

2. See your support as a proven investment with expected social returns

With limited investment, HBCUs are enrolling only 3% of the United States’ African American students and producing more than 25% of the nation’s African American graduates. Furthermore, studies conducted by organizations not specifically affiliated with HBCUs conclude that people who graduate from HBCUs have better health outcomes and are more civically engaged than similar students who graduate from other institutions.

Presidents want supporters to know that evidence shows that investment will allow them to make a greater positive social impact for learners served by HBCUs at a more rapid pace than what the same investment may do for similar learners in other sectors of higher education or elsewhere.

3. Get to know HBCUs to find mission alignment

For HBCU presidents, true partnership looks and feels like deep listening and learning between the HBCU and the supporting partner(s). Presidents are eager to better understand what each supporting institution is looking to achieve and, in turn, share what the HBCU is looking to achieve through the partnership.

In turn, presidents from some smaller institutions point out—with a great deal of care and respect for their fellow larger institutions—that prospective HBCU supporters would benefit from getting to know smaller institutions, as it may be possible to achieve great outcomes with the smaller institutions.


The great strength of the American education system, the envy of the world, is its diversity. You have large R1s, you have Ivies, you have HBCUs, you have HSIs and so many other institutions that students have to choose what is best for them, right? And so, as we choose partners, and as partners choose us, it’s important that our partners understand our mission, are willing to get to know us, get to know our students, [and] get deeply engaged with us to better understand what our needs are.


Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, President

Benedict College
4. Create options for students to be well-positioned for socioeconomic mobility

Presidents are both visionary and pragmatic about how to position students for socioeconomic mobility. They look to partners to help them create options to meet the needs of prospective HBCU students and eventual graduates, many of whom are Pell-eligible, first-generation students with responsibilities for caregiving, and who will require scholarships to pursue their educations.

In general, and in reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling against affirmative action, some leaders mention that HBCUs do not turn students away based on race; rather, they center on creating options and socioeconomic mobility outcomes for students who have not been prioritized across the higher education sector.

Presidents shared the aspiration that when students graduate, their economic trajectory needs to be strengthened by corporate, government, and nonprofit partners who see that they are not only positioned for a solid entry-level job, but also for a pathway that allows them to achieve a level of economic security and growth far beyond their starting point.

Supporting partners should think about creating options for students. As examples, presidents mentioned state flagship institutions creating partnerships with HBCUs within and beyond their state. Others mentioned partnerships with companies that have tuition reimbursement programs so that students can avoid the burden of debt and be able to improve their lives and those of their families. Others, including the president of a historically Black community college, mentioned the importance of partners supporting skilled trades with positive economic mobility outcomes.

5. Advocate for connectivity

Presidents cited the importance of identifying all potential partners within a 50-mile radius of campus, including cities, businesses, and organizations, to support the HBCU in their area as an “economic driver.”

Presidents emphasized that every constituency that touches the HBCU and its mission needs to be connected to the others, noting that a stronger nexus between state government, federal government, and philanthropy can help HBCUs make more progress.

They suggested that students and families and the HBCUs are doing the best they can to provide quality experiences for students to achieve the American dream. Yet, they recognized that more needs to be done across local, state, and federal government, as well as within the corporate and philanthropic communities.

From surviving to thriving

The modern value proposition of HBCUs is clear: HBCUs produce more Black doctors, judges, and engineers than any other segment of higher education in the United States. Enabling them to access more resources and build capacity in priority areas is critical to their advancement.

I strongly encourage all those interested to take note, extend support, and form partnerships with these presidents. By doing so, we collectively forge a brighter future that embraces progress while steadfastly upholding core values that have proven themselves as enduring beacons of diversity, excellence, and innovation.

Pavani Reddy

Principal, Public-Private Partnerships

Read Bio

More Blogs


Q&A: Why Winning on Talent is Critical to the State of the Higher Ed Sector

Staffing shortages in critical student services, like the counseling center, lead to fewer student appointments, reduction in services…
Strategy Blog

How flexible thinking and dynamic strategy can revitalize your institutional planning

In an operational context requiring greater agility, traditional methods for priority-setting and long-term planning fall short.
Strategy Blog

3 ways for EAB partners to get the most out of the new

We recently updated our site to make it easier for you to find the resources and events you’re…
Strategy Blog