There’s a dearth of men at many of the nation’s historically Black colleges. 

Whether it’s sociology at Claflin University or media law at North Carolina Central University, there are sometimes few to no men in the classes. The faces of the marching bands at places like Howard University are overwhelmingly female. And at Xavier University of Louisiana, all of the male freshmen fit into just one dorm. There are two, larger dorms for women.

Those are symptoms of a broader problem: At many of the nation’s HBCUS, just one in three undergraduate students is a man. It’s true at some of the largest public institutions, like Texas Southern University, and some of the most-selective private ones, like Howard University. 

And, it’s happening even as overall enrollment numbers rise at some HBCUs. Howard, for example, has gained more than 3,000 students since 2016. But of those additional students just one of every six has been a man. 

To be sure, the problem affects more than just HBCUs. Black student enrollment overall has been declining across higher education. But it’s particularly evident at historically Black institutions, which are specifically committed to educating Black people. 

HBCUs educate the majority of the nation’s Black engineers, lawyers, and judges. Fewer men in these programs means the diversity of the professions will suffer, and the racial wealth gap will grow.

And, for fields like teaching and medicine that are already facing shortages, shrinking numbers of men at HBCUs could hurt efforts to grow those professions. HBCUs educate half of the nation’s Black teachers and funnel more Black applicants to medical schools than non-HBCUs.

Calvin Hall, who leads North Carolina Central’s mass communications department, wants to find a way to attract more male students into the mostly female program — and he’s heard a similar desire from other faculty members.

Men “seem to be falling through the cracks,” he said. Meanwhile, Hall sees women in the communications program winning awards and taking leadership roles in student organizations. Fixing the gender gap matters — not just because Black men should be seen as successful “beyond the usual tropes like athletics or music.” 

“It adds a different voice, a different perspective and it helps us value everybody,” he said. ”If one group is not seen, it makes it easier for people to discount and to disregard and set aside.”

A pipeline problem

Experts agreed about one source of the downturn.. By the time they are set to graduate high school, Black male students often don’t feel they are college material. The enrollment decline shows that. 

Meredith Anderson, the K-12 research director at the United Negro College Fund, calls it a “belief gap” between what Black male students can achieve, and what others, such as teachers or college counselors, believe they can.

The data bear this out. Non-Black teachers have lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers, studies show. Black boys are more than three times as likely as white boys to be suspended. Black students are also underrepresented in gifted-and-talented programs and Advanced Placement courses.

Xavier University of Louisiana is deeply concerned about the lack of male students on campus, said Curtis Wright, the vice president of student affairs. (Photo: Courtesy of Xavier University of Louisiana)

Winston Coffee, a college liaison at Detroit-based Midnight Golf Program, sees this firsthand. Black students make up most of the program, which offers mentoring and guidance on the college process. Many of the Black men he works with say college isn’t for them. 

If being in school isn’t something you feel positively about, “there’s no reason why you would want to continue down a track like that,” he said.

And, college sometimes amounts to delayed gratification: The appeal of earning a paycheck without waiting for a degree — or earning a credential and then getting promoted as a result — lures many Black men away, he said.

When talking to Black men who aren’t interested in college, Coffee tries to understand where they’re coming from and asks how college might become a part of how they want to better themselves.

He also invites former program members who have gone to college to come and speak to high schoolers. Their influence matters — Black men with a college degree generally earn more than those without it.

A few HBCUs are bucking the trend: Male enrollment at Fisk University and Morehouse College increased between 2016-21. 

When talking at college fairs or in-school visits, on social media or during campus tours, the pitch to Black men interested in Morehouse goes beyond an educational benefit, said Jacory Bernard, an admissions recruiter at the college.

“For these young Black boys growing up in our world, it is a challenge just existing. They had these preconceived ideas and notions of their identity in context to the world. It is harder,” said Bernard. “You have the entirety of your life to spend as a minority in America, there is something profound about choosing for four years to be the majority.”

And others are working on specific fixes to improve the pipeline into higher education. In South Carolina, for example, a joint program between Claflin and Clemson Universities aims to recruit and train more Black male teachers and other men of color to work in the state’s public schools.

Through the program, Jarod Barksdale, a 2020 Claflin graduate, mentored young boys in Orangeburg’s public schools while he was in college. Now, he teaches middle school. It’s important to him that young boys have a teacher and potential role model who looks like them — often a rarity. The vast majority of public school teachers nationwide and in South Carolina are white — and just a sliver are men.

If fewer and fewer Black men go on to get a degree, young boys will see it as less important, he said. 

‘Shopping’ for the best opportunity

The cost of attending an HBCU can also deter students.

Valdez Wilson was the first man in his family to go to college. And, he always knew he wanted to attend an HBCU. He started out at Claflin University — but paying out of pocket became too expensive for him. 

Claflin’s net price — the cost of attendance after aid is factored in — in 2020-21 was about $19,300, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The net price at the University of North Carolina Pembroke, where Wilson transferred, that year was just over $11,000. And even though he pays out-of-state tuition, he receives the North Carolina Promise scholarship

“Claflin wasn’t a bad school. I loved being at an HBCU and all of the connections that I had. The issue was funding,” Wilson said.

And the cost of Claflin isn’t unique among private HBCUs, according to national data. In 2020-21, the net price at private HBCUs for students living on campus was more than $30,000. For on-campus students at public HBCUs, it was nearly $23,000. 

The cost matters, because Black borrowers hold disproportionate amounts of student loans. Black college graduates owe an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than white college graduates, according to the Education Data Initiative

The cost of HBCUs is a challenge, acknowledged Adriel Hilton, vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management at Southern University at New Orleans. While HBCUs do give out scholarships, many predominantly white institutions — which have a history of more government funding and larger endowments — can offer more in aid dollars.

While Southern has seen an increase in applications over the last three years, the share of men applying has decreased. (Fall 2023 applications are still coming in.) 

“Students are shopping for the best opportunity for them in terms of cost. They’re going to go where it is the cheapest they can attend,” he said.

Southern is doing what it can to try and increase male enrollment, he said. The university brought back men’s basketball this year after suspending it following the 2020 season as part of a broader cost-cutting measure. And, they offer room-and-board scholarships to members of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

A full-ride scholarship made Xavier University of Louisiana a possibility for Ashton Broden. (Photo: Courtesy of Ashton Broden)

Despite growing up in New Orleans, Ashton Broden never thought he would wind up at Xavier, where he is now a freshman. The university is known for its STEM programs and the cost didn’t seem worth it as a mass communication major. 

That changed last year when he found out he would receive the Walsh Scholarship, a full-ride scholarship that Xavier gives to one male, New Orleans resident each year. He hopes that by graduating, he’ll show other men in his community that it’s possible. 

The gender gap on campus stands out to him. Male enrollment at Xavier declined by 7% from 2016-21. Only 24% of students in 2021 were men.

“If other men see that I did it, it will make other males want to come to Xavier and help grow the number,” Broden said.

Xavier is “deeply concerned” about the lack of male students on campus, said Curtis Wright, the vice president of student affairs. 

The university has taken several steps to address it. Over the four years, it gave 75 Black men scholarships through a Coca-Cola partnership. It recently hired a Black male engagement coordinator. And, as part of its recruitment efforts, it hosts 50 Black high-school students on campus each summer. 

Shjan Carter, a junior at Howard, notices the gender gap on campus particularly in social scenarios — she has more connections with women. She mostly only sees women hanging out on the manicured main yard. There’s something missing.

“The mission of an HBCU can’t be fulfilled,” she said, “if we aren’t making a point to educate all Black people.” 

This story was co-published by the Washington Post.

Harris is the race and equity reporter at Open Campus. Stephens is an inaugural fellow in the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus. Support the program here.

Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.

Skylar is a sophomore at Xavier University of Louisiana majoring in mass communication.