The Economist, February 16, 2017 —

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Welcome, amigos: Historically black colleges and universities adjust to the times

The mascot at César E. Chávez High School in Houston, Texas, is the lobo, Spanish for wolf. Most of the pupils are Latino. The school is not the traditional pipeline for black colleges, yet last week Texas Southern University (TSU), a historically black university, visited the place to pitch the benefits of its institution. The university, which was founded in 1927 to educate black scholars when they had little access to higher education, has seen a steady increase in Latino enrolment. Over the past six years the share of Latinos at TSU has doubled, from 4% to 8%. Austin Lane, the university’s president, expects that figure to double again inside ten years.
TSU is not alone. In 2013 the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for Minority Serving Institutions looked at the changing face of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Although many are still majority-black, the report found that a quarter have at least a 20% non-black student population. Some of the growth is from white, Asian-American and international enrolment.

The strongest growth is coming from Latinos, especially in places, such as Texas and Florida, where the Latino population is also surging.

Some of this growth is organic. For instance, Paul Quinn College started a soccer programme, which appealed to Latino students, who now make up 20% of students. Others, like TSU, are actively recruiting in Latino communities. They visit Latino-majority high-schools and Spanish-language churches, and use bilingual recruiting material. “We are in the business of teaching and learning,” says Mr Lane, “but we are a business.”

Non-black student enrolment in HBCUs is nothing new—St Philip’s College admitted its first white students in 1955—but since the recent recession it has been economically necessary. HBCUs also face competition from colleges and universities whose doors were once closed to black students. The share of all black students who were enrolled at an HBCU fell from 18% in 1976 to 8% in 2014. Falling enrolment has left many institutions cash-strapped. Endowments tend to be small (black alumni do not always have spare money to donate), so most institutions rely on federal and state funding. Some of the 51 public colleges were also hit by state-funding cuts.

HBCUs were founded to educate former slaves and their descendants. They helped to create America’s black middle class. More than a fifth of black pharmacists were educated at Florida A&M, an HBCU.

A recent report by the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, found that HBCUs do a better job at enrolling students from low-income backgrounds than their traditional counterparts.

HBCUs tend to have lower tuition fees and provide a nurturing campus. That appeals to Latinos, who are often the first in their families to attend college, says Marybeth Gasman, the author of the University of Pennsylvania report.

Even with the growing numbers of Latinos, many schools are still on shaky financial ground. During the presidential campaign Donald Trump said he would ensure HBCU funding. An executive order on HBCU funding is said to be in the works. The education secretary, Betsy DeVos, recently visited Howard University, the most prestigious of the black colleges. A meeting between Republican lawmakers and HBCU leaders is planned later this month.

Although some alumni worry that the influx of Latinos may dilute the HBCUs’ primary purpose, to educate black students, administrators argue that the mission is intact. They are still educating the underserved.

“We don’t have the luxury of saying we only want black folks,” says Jarrett Carter of HBCU Digest, an online publication. “We want everybody.”

Most institutions are walking the line of honouring the past and maintaining a haven for black culture, while also allowing Latino students to create their own fraternities and sororities. There have even been Latina homecoming queens. As one head of an HBCU puts it, “You don’t have to be Catholic to go to Georgetown [a Jesuit university]. We can diverge without losing our identity.”

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Welcome, amigos”