Considering options following high school is an exciting, yet stressful time for many students and their families. I first visited a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) as a teenager with my father. As the tour guide led me around campus on my visit, I was struck by the history and legacy of these type of institutions. HBCUs were originally established in the United States to provide higher education and training options to Black students or students of African descent who were not permitted to attend existing institutions of higher education due to their race. In the late 1800s, the first HBCUs focused on increasing economic independence and self-sustainability for free-born or emancipated slaves through training in basic reading, writing, and math, as well as in teaching, theology, or industrial arts. Since that time, HBCUs have evolved to offer degree programs, majors, and courses at over 107 HBCUs in existence today, playing an important role in serving students who are minority, low-income, or first-generation. The knowledge I gained on my college visit was influential in my decision to attend Hampton University, an HBCU located in Hampton, Virginia.
As an HBCU graduate, I feel strongly that these institutions remain valuable options for students. One misconception surrounding HBCUs is that they are not diverse learning environments. However, my four years spent in an HBCU community provided me the opportunity to establish relationships with individuals from across the country and outside of the United States who represent a wide range of racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Another aspect of HBCU attendance that stands out in my memory is the faculty support I received. Faculty at HBCUs possess a unique skillset to connect with and serve diverse students, and are usually personally committed to ensuring students’ success. Because HBCUs were designed to serve students who were historically excluded from higher education, their obligation to helping students realize their full potential has resulted in high graduation rates. I will never forget how proud I felt for me and my friends at my graduation ceremony, many of whom were the first in their families to complete a college program.
The development of inclusive postsecondary education programs at universities across the country have expanded access to higher education for students with intellectual disabilities. Currently, only one HBCU has an established inclusive postsecondary education program for students with intellectual disabilities. The Bulldog L.I.F.E. Program at the HBCU, Alabama A&M University, is a two-year program where students with intellectual disabilities have the opportunity to engage with their peers in a college environment while completing courses and internships that prepare them for employment and independent living. Efforts have been made to bring inclusive postsecondary programs like the Bulldog L.I.F.E. Program to other HBCUs. Many HBCUs have expressed interest in developing college programs for students with intellectual disabilities, but face several challenges in successfully doing so. First, HBCUs often lack philanthropic funding that other larger institutions have been able to use to assist with getting programs up and running. When funding is provided by the state and federal government, disparities can exist in the amount of funding provided to HBCUs compared to predominantly White institutions (PWI). Therefore, when designing programs at HBCUs stakeholders are tasked with considering how the program will be sustained over time. A second challenge involves the need to raise awareness around college program options for students with intellectual disabilities within communities of color. A number of financial deterrents exist, including the fear that families will lose their Social Security Income (SSI) benefits if their student with an intellectual disability becomes employed. Outreach to families in underserved communities and education on the financial benefits of having their student complete a program in higher education is essential for increasing the enrollment of minority students with intellectual disabilities.
The level of faculty support, commitment to student success, and sense of community at HBCUs make it the ideal place for students with intellectual disabilities to reach the full potential of their academic, vocational, or independent living goals. Making HBCUs more accessible to students with intellectual disabilities through the establishment of inclusive college programs would contribute to the diversity present in these college and university communities. Both students with and without intellectual disabilities would benefit from sharing a college campus together at HBCUs, learning from each other’s life experiences and preparing them to continue to share those experiences after college. It is incredibly important for campuses founded with the purpose of providing opportunities to those from underserved and historically excluded populations to prioritize individuals with disabilities within these communities and supporting the historical role of HBCUs in enhancing equal educational opportunity for all students.
Being able to add graduates of inclusive postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities to the list of accomplishments would contribute enormously to the legacy HBCUs hold of being pioneers for equity and access.