Historically Black colleges and universities play a substantial role in producing Black graduates, even with a fraction of the state resources that predominantly white institutions receive. 

HBCUs are a vehicle of advancement for their students, outperforming their counterparts in a number of fields, especially in STEM. They educate most of the nation’s Black engineers, lawyers, and judges, and half of the nation’s Black teachers.  

Travis Smith, an assistant professor at Auburn University focused on higher education administration and an Alabama State alumnus, is an expert in career development for Black students.

We spoke with Smith about the career-development role that HBCUs play for their students. HBCUs, he said, have always had to make “lemonade with no lemons, no water, no sugar, just working magic.”

(This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.) 

How have HBCUs addressed the preparation of their students for a job market that has historically underrepresented them?

Travis Smith: HBCUs allow students to engage in self-identity development. When you know who you are, you know your worth and you know your contribution to society. I think HBCUs are our steam engines — producing and equipping Black people with confidence, empowering Black students and providing them with inspiration to go out and be change agents in the world.

Travis Smith

What factors complicate how HBCUs respond to changes in workplace culture?

If you think about funding, it’s not just getting money to the schools, we’re talking about infrastructure. For example, if you look at STEM, if we want to prepare our students to compete in a global market, well, that means our schools have to have the latest and greatest technology, the infrastructure, which costs money. And so that funding impacts every facet of the university, particularly HBCUs. And as the workplace changes, our higher education institutions also have to change. But in order to change lab space, classrooms, and technology, and stay on the cutting edge of all these groundbreaking things, you have to upgrade software and bring in the latest and greatest faculty members that are in the industry — which costs money.

What resources might HBCUs need that better-resourced predominantly white institutions generally have, and how do those discrepancies trickle down to students?

We need infrastructure, we need technology. All of that goes around money. I think about it, “What does a student need to be successful?” Here at Auburn, you have Wi-Fi across the campus, everywhere you go it’s there. A student can do their work in the confines and comfort of their room, they can walk outside, they can be in a parking deck and do some work; all that matters. When I got to my master’s program at the university, they had all these different policies in regards to student accounts, financial aid and all these different systems that all work together. I overly thrived as a graduate student, because I’m not used to having access to that type of stuff. And so I think those things are minute things. But if you add five single things, you get a powerful fist. So those small things continue to add up.

How has the lack of overall funding impacted HBCUs’ abilities to provide career readiness and support for their students?

I would challenge that notion. I think HBCUs, despite these inequities, have still been able to produce. How I like to frame it is, “What if we did have access? How much more could we do?” Some professors at Clemson visited Tuskegee, and when they got back, they were like, “How do they produce the caliber of students that they produce, with such limited access to lab space and stuff like that?”

I was thinking in my mind, “That’s that HBCU magic,” because y’all couldn’t do that. A lot of PWIs brag about retention rates and stuff, but only 20% of your students are on Pell Grants. So they ain’t worried about money. Money is a major factor in a lot of HBCUs. So we’re not educating the same caliber of students. And when I say caliber, I’m saying students that come from wealth or whatever it may be. I would challenge people to say if HBCUs can produce this amount of doctors, lawyers, educators, physicists, scientists, whatever it may be with this, imagine what they can do if they have equitable access to funds and grants and all those other things.

You have mentioned that historically, HBCUs have punched above their weight class in certain fields. For example, they produce a disproportionate number of lawyers, doctors, social workers, etc. How do these HBCUs do this?

I think these HBCUs are doing this because they have an ethos of care, meaning our philosophy at HBCUs is we want to care for the whole student. By doing that, you’re empowering the student to be successful. So it doesn’t matter how limited the resources are at the institutions in these academic programs, these HBCUs, these professors, the faculty, the staff, and the alumni are always pouring back into the students. That’s how I think HBCUs are able to do it.

Rosegalie Cineus is a fellow with the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus.