Are historically Black colleges a potential home for Latinos?
Should Latino students searching for a nurturing, challenging academic environment consider one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities? A growing number are doing so.
In the United States, the term “historically Black colleges and universities,” commonly shortened to HBCUs, refers to colleges that were founded before 1965 with a mission of serving African-American students. But today, 1 in 4 students at an HBCU are not African-American.
Many of those students are Latino, particularly in the southern United States. In Texas, a full 20 percent of students at historically Black Huston-Tillotson University are Latino.
This increase in enrollment happens as the number of Latino college students overall is also increasing. Data from the Pew Research Center indicates that college enrollment among Latino students nationwide has tripled in the past 20 years. More than 2 million Latinos ages 18-24 are now attending college.
There are a variety of reasons that Latino students might choose an HBCU specifically, observers say. One is the generally small class sizes. Another is the opportunity to participate in sports, and even obtain an athletic scholarship.
But perhaps foremost is the mission: HBCUs have been successful at serving low-income, first-generation college students. For Latino students and families, this dedication to providing access could be compelling.
Here in the Philadelphia region, the historic role of HBCUs in providing access for disadvantaged students is fulfilled by two institutions. Lincoln University, founded in 1854, is located in southern Chester County, with additional campuses in West Philadelphia and Coatesville.
Cheyney University, founded in 1837, is located at the border of Delaware and Chester counties, just west of Philadelphia.
While both universities benefit from small, friendly campuses of approximately 1500 students, both have struggled with declining enrollment. At the same time, the Latino population in Chester County alone has doubled over the last 15 years, to 33,000 people.
The universities have begun to take notice. Cheyney began holding an annual Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in 2009. Among the event’s guest speakers have been former Philadelphia mayoral candidate and city solicitor Nelson Diaz, and Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez.
Lincoln University is taking pro-active steps to recruit Latino students. “Our primary target markets are Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey,” all of which are home to substantial Latino communities, explains Maureen Stokes, associate vice president in the Office of Communications and Public Relations. “[In those states], we’re attending college fairs that [focus on] Hispanic populations.”
In addition, she says, the university is working with the nonprofit organization ASPIRA to explore other ways to recruit and retain Latino students.
A key question may be financial aid. The overwhelming majority of students at both Lincoln and Cheyney receive need-based financial assistance. Such support can make the difference in allowing low-income students to pursue higher education. But universities with smaller endowments are limited in their ability to provide grants or scholarships, and both schools have modest endowments.
Lincoln is also working to tackle the challenge from the other side: keeping tuition costs as affordable as possible. Earlier this year, acting president Valerie Harrison testified to the Pennsylvania legislature about Lincoln’s efforts to limit tuition increases.
Ultimately, the decision on whether an HBCU is the right fit may come down to the individual student. As one researcher who has studied the issue termed it, it is “a sense of belonging.”
Amanda Bergson-Shilcock is a writer and editor who has spent more than a decade working in the immigration field.