Historic Jubilee Hall. Photo by Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN – A new report from the United Negro College Fund(UNCF) critiqued culturally relevant practices among historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

The report, Culturally Relevant Practice: Implementation Among Historically Black Colleges and Universities, looked at why UNCF is especially equipped to support HBCUs and institutions focused on increasing Black student success.

Qualitative measures of HBCUs include things like student demographics, retention rates, and student loan default rates. But they aren’t the whole story. Failure to include context and consider mission fuels a deficit narrative of HBCUs,” the report authors wrote.

“Conceptualizing Black students as ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘at risk,’ can have the colonizing effect of ‘othering’ these students by placing them outside a normative standard,” wrote author J. E. King. King said that using deficit language reveals a knowledge bias that affects research and its application in higher education.

“Our language—from publications to presentations—are reflective of the path making role HBCUs have played in American education and the brilliance of the students they educate.

We place HBCUs and Black students at the center of our methods. Consequently, the epistemologies, methods and theoretical frameworks we use cannot simultaneously subjugate them or inherently portray them as deficit,” the report said.

HBCUs routinely accept students from more challenging educational environments, with less access to resources and with a greater likelihood of temporarily or indefinitely stopping out of their college education. All other things being equal, you would expect higher dropout rates, lower GPAs, and generally less student success in HBCUs. But you would be wrong.

HBCUs’ curricula is grounded in a desire to challenge deficit paradigms about Black learners. HBCU instruction honors the lived experience of HBCU faculty as knowledge producers who have invested significant time working with Black students.

HBCUs enroll 3% of all college students, 10% of all Black students, produce 17% of Black BAs, and 24% of STEM BAs.

“Equality is not the same as equity,” said Dr. Venus Evans-Winters. She said Black feminist scholars who do education research deal with two different mindsets.

“One is let’s pull (marbles) out of the bag and give everyone an equal chance whereas equity is saying we understand the impact of White supremacy and structural racism and how if affects people’s opportunity and how it can affect outcomes,” Evans-Winters said.

Doing research with two different frames of reference is challenging. One issue is getting it in front of policy-makers who make decisions about curricula. It’s not enough to get published in academic journals. Black feminist scholars, who aim to advance Black higher education, must put their work into practice.

The UNCF report cites four principles that support “practices in pedagogy”.  Generally, they are about storytelling as both roadmap and knowledge depository. Black scholars have a different notion about who is an expert. Black lives have not only been historically neglected in academia but also the lived experience of Blacks is an often-ignored resource in academic research.

Studying Black educational models provides research Black institutions of higher education can use. Black scholars can use the cultural knowledge and experience of researchers and their participants in the design of the research as well as in the collection and interpretation of data. This is not the usual case with research which values “objectivity” but yields skewed results.

“Individuals who have lived through the experiences about which they claim to be experts are more believable and credible than those who have merely read and thought about such experience,” noted Dr. P.H. Collins.

One idea informing Black feminist thought work is looking “to the bottom” and starting with the most vulnerable part of the population. “If we start from the overwhelming majority of students will benefit from this, then we lose students, the most vulnerable students, the ones who fall through the cracks,” said Dr. Lori Patton Davis of Ohio State University.

“So equity-minded is flipping this on its head and caring about the most vulnerable student gets taken care of, and how they are treated and regarded through the educational process,” she said.

She said that educational research doesn’t have to recreate the wheel. “Plenty of HBCUs are already doing the work. Doing it better and doing it with fewer resources,” Patton Davis said.

“When I think about Black people and how we made it you know, a lot of that rests with the work that has occurred at HBCUs.”