As I listened to three distinguished representatives of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) talk about the state of higher education and how technology can address the challenges ahead, their voices crystallized in a simple sentence in my head: “The future of education is inclusive.”

They were panelists on a webinar I hosted: Ivy Banks, Vice President of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion at Xavier University; Dr. Damian Clarke, Chief Information Officer of Meharry Medical College; and Dr. Ricky Jones, Chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville.

HBCUs are built differently

What these speakers understand is that HBCUs are fundamentally built differently than other institutions of higher learning—and that has powerful implications for how they operate today, how they address the modern challenges of education, and how corporations can successfully partner with them.

Beginning with the founding of the first university for Black people in 1837, HBCUs were created to serve the needs of those who were systemically excluded, so they were designed from a mindset of inclusion. Because of that, how HBCUs think about growth and how they solve problems is inherently different from organizations that don’t aim primarily to meet the needs of marginalized populations.

Operating from a mindset of inclusion

HBCUs were born in an environment of exclusion, and they continue to operate where the playing field is often not level. In spite of declines in federal funding and smaller endowments, on a normalized basis HBCUs graduate students at higher rates than other local state institutions. They also disproportionately produce Black graduates, accounting for just 3% of schools and 17% of Black graduates. By taking an inclusive approach, they address challenges with creative and innovative thinking to deliver educational success.

In the words of Dr. Clarke, HBCUs have a tradition of meeting students where they are. “If you only look at a student as a test score or a transcript, you ignore where that student is coming from.” He talked about how, during the pandemic, his institution discovered just how many students, faculty, and staff did not have access to the internet bandwidth they needed to succeed in a remote learning situation. To address this, the school provided those individuals laptops with data plans to ensure that bandwidth—something many take for granted as a basic utility—was not a barrier to accessibility.

Because HBCUs aim to serve the needs of a marginalized population, they more critically ask questions about whether the educational experience they are designing is accessible, Ms. Banks explained. For example, on the question of affordability, HBCUs are more likely to ask if they are creating costs students can’t afford. As a result of this inclusive mindset, an HBCU education is more affordable than comparable state universities. The lower average debt load allows their graduates to more easily choose careers of service, such as teaching.

When asked about what sets HBCUs apart and drives their success, Dr. Jones talked about how HBCUs care about the Black students they were founded to serve in three ways: curriculum, culture, and challenge. HBCUs take an interest in Black students when they are often overlooked or neglected in other educational systems, intentionally create strong cultures of intellectual engagement and social interaction, and both challenge their students to perform and give them examples of those who have succeeded before them.

Learning from HBCUs’ inclusive approach

HBCUs have been building a more inclusive future for the better part of two centuries. A lot can be learned from their approach.

As Ms. Banks said, schools need to be asking questions about whether the educational experience they are designing is accessible. Are we being inclusive of all and listening to their voices? Do we tell those we want to serve that they must change, or do we ask how institutions, companies, governments—which have the resources and the power—can change to meet the need of those they serve?

Institutions of all kinds should look to HBCUs as a model for how to think about inclusivity and build an inclusive future. Large enterprises in particular—those companies with the greatest resources—need to recognize the critical role HBCUs have played in providing higher education for marginalized populations and creating a well-educated pipeline of qualified candidates and be part of the solution to ensure this legacy continues for generations to come.

I am proud to work for a company that is preserving the legacy and sustainability of HBCUs. Through our five-year $150 million commitment to HBCUs, Cisco is already working with 36 schools in 11 states to provide critical technology upgrades. We are helping them deploy solutions such as Cisco Umbrella, Secure Endpoint, Duo, Cloudlock, Secure Email, and Secure Malware Analytics to modernize, secure, and protect their IT environments. Plus, we’re actively supporting the HBCU Caucus Partnership Challenge is an effort to promote greater engagement and support between private companies and HBCUs.

I invite you to watch the seminar, How HBCU’s are transforming the future of Higher Education, to learn more.

Additional resources