Riverside varsity cheer coach and math teacher Kayla Thompson takes pride in attending North Carolina Central University (NCCU).
Thompson graduated from NCCU in 2013 and was a varsity cheerleader. She became Riverside’s head cheerleading coach in 2019 and began working at Riverside as a math teacher a year later. Her time at NCCU was both affirming and enlightening.
“My favorite thing about being at my school was being surrounded by and getting a true feel for my people,” Thompson said. “I grew up in a small country town where I was taught we all have equal opportunities, and based on how things were presented to me I truly believed that. Had I not attended an HBCU I would not have been privy to the systems of life.”
Thompson recently attended the 2022 Celebration Bowl, a college football game in which the champions of the most prominent HBCU conferences face off. This year, NCCU took on Jackson State University (JSU).
NCCU’s remarkable win over JSU sparked conversation over the recognition of HBCUs and the roles they play in society
“[The game was] in one word, phenomenal,” Thompson said. “I can’t put the feeling into words. If I had to select a verse from a song it would hands down be, ‘Started from the bottom, now we’re here!’ I love, love, love the unity and camaraderie of Black people coming together for a common cause. It brings me joy I can’t explain.”
What are historically Black colleges and universities?
Historically Black Colleges and Universities, more commonly known as HBCUs, were created to educate African American students before they were allowed to attend predominantly white institutions (PWIs).
“Congress officially defined an HBCU as a school of higher learning that was accredited and established before 1964, and whose principal mission was the education of African Americans,” according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. “HBCUs offer culture, a rich history and rigorous academic programs.”
Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was the first HBCU.Created in 1837, Cheyney was established through a $10,000 provision from a Quaker philanthropist named Richard Humphreys. The university was first named The African Institute and later The Institute for Colored Youth.
Some other popular HBCUs include Spelman College, Morehouse College, Howard University, and Hampton University.
HBCUs in North Carolina include Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, Johnson C. Smith University, Livingstone College, Saint Augustine University, Shaw University, NC Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T), Winston Salem State University (WSSU), and North Carolina Central University (NCCU). NC A&T became the largest HBCU in the U.S in 2014, surpassing Howard University.
HBCUs are known for their rich culture in music, dance, and sports. Popular events and activities like the HBCU Battle of the Bands, Black College Football National Championship, and Stomp and Shake Cheerleading create a space for African American people to celebrate freedom and cultural excellence.
“My favorite thing about being at my school specifically was being surrounded by my people, and being a cheerleader,” Thompson said.
How do they compare to PWIs?
Riverside RPC coordinator and assistant football coach Corey Hairston graduated from NC A&T in 2012. Hairston played varsity football.
“My favorite thing about NC A&T was the atmosphere,” Hairston said. “The campus life is great.”
Though Hairston enjoyed his experience at an HBCU, he cannot help but compare his experience to that of a student attending a PWI.
“I do wish I went to a PWI sometimes,” Hairston said. “HBCUs are smaller, while PWIs are very big.”
He also encourages Riverside’s football players to consider the differences during the recruiting process.
“I advise athletes to go to PWIs because of the luxuries you get,” Harison said. “I want the kid to be able to ride a plane to their game, as opposed to riding a bus for twelve hours. That’s a luxury.”
Because of their origins in racial discrimination and segregation, HBCUs have not always been given the same treatment as PWIs.
“HBCUs have been at the center of the Black struggle for equality and dignity,” writes Walter Allen in a 2007 article titled “Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Honoring the Past, Engaging the Present, Touching the Future.” “We have always been judged for the color of our skin, denied equal educational opportunity, and told the educational gap between Blacks and Whites was the reason for our subjected status in society.”
When asked about the key differences between HBCUs and PWIs, Thompson said she believes it is resources.
“I’ve met good people from all walks of life and we had a ball walking the sloping hills and verdant greens of NCCU who wanted better for themselves and their families,” said Thompson.
“But the lack of resources presented so many roadblocks for them. Roadblocks that I had no clue existed and wouldn’t have known existed had I not attended NCCU.”
According to the American Council on Education, As of 2019 HBCUs received at least 70% less endowments than PWIs.
“Non-HBCUs have strikingly larger endowments than their HBCU peers,” writes Denise Smith in an article titled “Exposing the Gap: Addressing Funding Disparities for HBCUs” published on the American Council for Education’s blog. “Recent data highlights that average endowments of public HBCUs are $7,265 per student and $24,989 per student at private HBCUs compared to the average endowment of $25,390 per student at public colleges and $184,409 at private institutions.”
According to an article published by the Brookings Institute, HBCUs are “chronically underfunded” due to state underinvestment, lower alumni contributions, lower Black incomes/wealth, and lower endowments.
“HBCUs are systematically shorted of critical resources,” writes Kristen Broady, Andre Perry and Carl Romer in a 2021 Brookings Institute blog post. “All together, the 10 largest HBCU endowments in 2020 totaled $2 billion, compared to $200 billion across the top 10 PWI endowments. The combined endowment for every HBCU in the country through 2019 was just over $3.9 billion. For context, New York University alone had an endowment of $4.3 billion that year.”
In Maryland in 2019, HBCUs Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore were involved in a 13-year-long legal battle with the General Assembly. These Maryland HBCUs accused the state of promoting segregation by disproportionately “over-funding” PWIs.
The legal team of the Maryland HBCUs proposed the state pay $577 million. Governor Larry Hogan offered only $200 million in a “take it or leave it” deal. Hogan did eventually agree to give the proposed amount over a ten year period starting in 2023, but the delay in proper funding stunted the possible growth of the HBCUs.
“The main differences are resources and the lack of acknowledging the wisdom and education that comes with attending an HBCU,” Thompson said.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of Black college students enrolled at HBCUs decreased from 18 percent in 1976, to eight percent in 2014.
Raising the profile
Deion Sanders, also known as “Coach Prime” or “Neon Deion,” is the former head coach of the Jackson State University (JSU) Football team, a public HBCU in Jackson, Mississippi. A football legend that played for teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, and Washington Redskins during the 1990s. Sanders was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year and won Super Bowls with the 49ers and Cowboys. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011. After retiring from the NFL, Sanders went on to be a TV analyst with the NFL network.
Sanders later left his TV job to coach at JSU and raise the profile of HBCUs. He recruited top high school players to come play for the team as opposed to PWIs. In 2021, Sanders managed to recruit receiver Travis Hunter, the nation’s number one, five star recruit.
Sanders admits that it is more difficult to recruit for HBCUs than PWIs because of the uneven playing field between the two.
“The fight is not going to be easy. Getting the players to commit to a historically Black college is not easy because you’ve got to level the playing field,” Sanders said in a 2021 interview with The Associated Press. “You’re competing against a Power Five that has 100 times more resources than we do, and the exposure.”
Sanders recently left JSU for the University of Colorado, a PWI, to become the head coach of the Colorado Buffalo football team. This shocking development came with both praise and criticism.
Many are pointing out how he encouraged more black athletes to commit to PWIs but now is saying he will bring those same black athletes to the University of Colorado. Others are calling him a “sellout” and blaming the struggle of HBCUs on coaches like him.
“Deion was preaching elevating HBCU programs & looks like he was just using JSU as a launching pad for his coaching career, which is fine, but don’t go around acting like it was for altruistic reasons,” a fan of JSU, Ashton Morris, said on twitter.
“The debate about Sanders’ leaving Jackson State has centered on whether he should be considered a “sellout” for having left an HBCU football program that he made successful for a struggling program at a better-funded, predominantly white institute,” writes NBC’s Char Adams.
According to Adams, the answer to whether or not this was a good decision from Sanders is unclear. On one hand, Sanders has a 27-5 coaching record at Jackson and has forever reformed the program, but he is leaving a school that he claimed needed attention from more Black coaches like him.
Additionally, Sanders announced his departure from the team at a crucial time: right before the 2022 Celebration Bowl. The game was held at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia against NCCU, which won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). Many Riverside faculty and staff went to the game in support of the Eagles and had things to say about Sanders’ decision.
“I appreciate Coach Prime for the recognition he brought to HBCUs and all he did for Jackson State University.” Thompson said. “ In the same breath, we [HBCUs] were thriving prior to Prime Time and we will continue to do so. I hate that we live in a world where he has to make the decision to go to a PWI to pursue his goals.”
The News and Observer called Central’s win “A win for HBCU football, too.” And while Sanders has moved on, other Black athletes and coaches are working to raise the profile of HBCUs, too.
In 2020, Five Star basketball recruit Makur Maker became the first of his status to commit to an HBCU since 2007. He chose Howard University over PWIs like the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and University of Kentucky.
Maker says this decision was part of a greater “HBCU movement,” to encourage more Black athletes to commit to HBCUs to raise their status.
NCCU basketball coach LeVelle Moton has been raising the profile of NCCUs men’s basketball team for thirty years. After graduating as one of the best players in school history in 1996, Moton returned to coach at his alma mater and has since racked up over 200 wins and four NCAA tournament appearances.
In a 2021 ESPN documentary titled “Why Not Us,” Moton worked with NBA star Chris Paul and members of the NCCU basketball team to explore the history and cultural significance of HBCUs. The documentary explores the lives of NCCU basketball players and what HBCUs mean to them.
The film questions the differences between HBCUs and PWIs and asks the important question “why not us?” in reference to funding and exposure inequalities.
“HBCUs face challenges to compete at the same level as PWIs due to lack of funding, resources and awareness,” Paul said in an interview with Disney Digital Media prior to the first episode’s release. “Despite the obstacles they face, Why Not Us shines a light on these amazing Black student athletes who attend HBCUs, and how these historically significant schools continue to enrich not only the Black community but our nation as a whole.”
What can future students look forward to?
Though HBCUs are still suffering financially, there are several new investments into HBCUs that we can look forward to.
In 2021 the Biden-Harris Administration announced they would be contributing $5.8 billion to HBCUs across the nation to relieve debt for undergraduate students, support faculty and staff, and provide new grants for students.
With this the administration enacted the Build Back Better Act that provides $10 billion to HBCUs, Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). The money will help fund infrastructure upgrades, research, and STEM programs. They also successfully convinced the Department of Education to increase the budget for HBCUs by $72 million in 2022.
Not only is funding slowly increasing, but enrollment is too. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, in 2022 HBCU undergraduate enrollment increased 2.5 percent, overriding the 1.7 percent decrease HBCUs faced in 2021.
“If I say I’m a Duke graduate, that turns heads. Central is down the street and it doesn’t get the same recognition or respect. Why?” Thompson said. “They’re both located in Durham ‘Bull City’ North Carolina. What’s the difference in regards to the knowledge you gain? An education is an education.”
“It is great to have the special things and accomplishments of schools, and specifically for HBCUs,” assistant principal Jasmine McCoy who also went to NCCU said. “We really treasure the culture and the excitement we can bring to our universities”