The state of research on Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Marybeth Gasman, Felecia Commodore

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose – The purpose of this article is to examine the salient literature on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with an overarching goal of setting a future research agenda for scholars interested in these institutions. Design/methodology/approach – This literature review is organized into two main sections: strengths and challenges. To move HBCUs forward, scholars need an understanding of these institutions’ strengths as well as those challenges that lie ahead. Findings – The major strengths include the value-added nature of the education provided by HBCUs (i.e. the willingness of HBCUs to educate “at-risk” students); affordability in terms of tuition; community engagement; leadership training of future generations; Afrocentric curricula and a competitive yet supportive learning environment, which is particularly beneficial in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields; a focus on teaching; and faculty and student diversity. The first half of this paper will focus on these strengths. These same national experts identified the challenges as low retention and graduation rates; lack of financial resources (especially for student scholarships and attracting faculty), and competition from historically White institutions (HWIs); the need for sustainable administrative leadership; lack of marketing of HBCU success stories; the pressures of desegregation and holding true to mission; the challenge of producing future scholars who care about the needs of HBCUs; small endowment size; and the persistent gender gaps in student enrollment. The second half of this paper will focus on these challenges. Practical implications – In addition, by identifying the strengths and challenges, researchers can assist practitioners at HBCUs as well as those in the policy and funding arenas in better understanding the needs of HBCUs. Social implications – The research on HBCUs has grown substantially over the past 30 years. However, this body of research still has substantial gaps and holes. If filled, many of these gaps and holes would lead to stronger institutions, greater knowledge on the impact of HBCUs and enhanced learning experiences for HBCU students. Many young scholars are interested in studying HBCUs but are often discouraged: when they approach their advisor with the topic, they are told it is not important and that their career will be limited by the topical choice. There is a lack of support within sections of the HBCU community for research that might uncover weaknesses or not treat HBCUs in an entirely favorable light. We encourage those interested in pursuing research related to HBCUs to find mentors who will support them in their pursuits. Originality/value – Although some of these topics and subsequent suggestions involve taking on controversial issues, it is important for individuals affiliated with and who care about HBCUs to conduct this research before uninformed outsiders do it (Gasman, 2006). There needs to be a concerted effort from HBCUs, HBCU faculty, HBCU scholar – practitioners and HBCU allies – the “insiders” and the “outsiders” – to ensure those closest to HBCUs have the opportunity to share their own voice, rather than simply have others speak for them. HBCU leaders and organizations that ignore negative data and institutional challenges do so at their own peril.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)89-111
Number of pages23
JournalJournal for Multicultural Education
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 3 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Equity
  • Ethnicity
  • Race

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


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