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Achieving Retention, Student Success and Student Engagement in HBCUs


The role of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the education of minority groups has been put into question in the recent past. It is not just for the removal of the wall that led to the creation of these institutions, but also because of dwindling numbers of students who successfully complete their education. Although the institutions continue to depend on government aids for many years after they were created, the programs and activities pursued by HBCUs seem to cause lower retention rates, poor performance, and less engagement from students. Some actions need to be undertaken in order to improve such estimations and ensure that the HBCUs have a significant impact on the education of minority groups. Thus, there is a need to identify the experienced challenges and to propose adoptable ways for practitioners to be executed in their daily management of such institutions across the country. Accordingly, this paper provides a discussion of the challenges and ways to improve retention, success, and engagement levels in HBCUs.


Retention, Success and Engagement of Students in HBCUs: A Model for Practitioners

The education for blacks in the United States has played a major role in improving the social and political conditions of minority groups. HBCUs were formed to provide equal opportunities of education for African Americans when other avenues for equal participation were still closed to them. Since then, these institutions have greatly influenced producing and nurturing leaders who embraced progressive concepts such as W.E.B Du Bois Talented Tenth. Moreover, they have promoted the advancing of social equality for everyone in the country. However, lately, the retention rates, success levels, and engagement of students in the activities of these institutions have been worrying. Even though many of them continue to have a penchant for education, the level of participation of Black Americans in the educational pipeline compares poorly with other stateside groups. The evidence based on qualitative investigation points to several factors that could ensure higher retention rate, student success, and student engagement in HBCU institutions around the country (Landry, 2004). Part of the reason for the reduced retention is the questioning of the need for HBCUs upon widespread overturn of segregation and expansion of learning opportunities for blacks around the country. This paper is an exploration of the challenges facing HBCUs and methods to achieve higher retention rates, to ensure that those who attend these institutions succeed, and to provide the opportunities for total student engagement in the institutional activities.

Trends in HBCU’s Retention, Success, and Engagement of Students

Although minority students are joining historically black colleges and universities at a higher rate than in previous years, the number of those leaving it before completing their studies is higher when compared to a nonminority in these learning institutions. Such trend is evidenced by the institutions of higher learning in the reports of poor retention levels, dismal performance, and low level of student engagement (Seidman, 2005). For example, the records also reveal that the retention rate for Asian students has been consistently high for many years: however, the minority groups such as American Indians, Hispanics, and African Americans show a decrease. The success rate is also disturbing as yet the lesser number of minority representatives has reported encouraging results even after they have been retained in school (Watson, Terrell, & Wright, 2008). Furthermore, the dissociation, a lack of interest in co-curriculum operations as well as a resistance to modernization result in further reduction of the level of student engagement in learning. The reason for that is that more minority learners in HBCUs become concerned with everything but their education. Additionally, federal and state government has taken an interest in retention debate for HBCUs because of the escalating cost of higher education (Seidman, 2005). The financial aid programs, which are provided for the HBCU institutions, must be seen to work and bring to fruition through the means of high retention rates, student success, and an increased engagement.

The Challenge of Maintaining High Retention Rates in HBCUs

To ensure that higher rates of retention are achieved in HBCUs, it is important to understand the challenges facing the stakeholders in these institutions and students, in particular. Traditionally, HBCUs have depended on state and federal funding for their activities. Nevertheless, the social, economic inequality between black and other families has continued to grow despite of the governmental steps made in normalizing the situation. Moreover, while a greater part of the funding has been lost, the society has faced severe losses in resources, which made it difficult for parents to support their children and retain them in the educational establishments (Landry, 2004). In addition to the financial crisis, some rules in HBCUs are also outdated and need to be changed to support the emerging needs of the society. For instance, the major focus should be on retaining the students in educational establishments and creating a memorable experience of their schooling. Instead the HBCUs are forced to focus their energy on recurring the debt incurred by a student who has prematurely terminated the education. Because of that, the institution risks the loss of two important assets, namely, participants and the future funding. It becomes difficult to implement the provision of tuition and other auxiliary services, when the students are not completing their studies (Seidman, 2005). What is more, the reduction in the number of learners means that the college or the university is going to lose the support represented by the demand from the surrounding community. As a result, the economic impacts meted on the community affect the way the community college or university functions in the future.

The Involvement of Government in Support of HBCUs

The involvement of government in the support of education in HBCUs is important for securing the continuous involvement and development of such establishments in the society. Through educational agencies the government wants to secure the funds given to HBCUs direction as to perform the task of retaining students in the institutions, procuring good performance, and increasing student engagement. In other words, the aid given to students must help them complete their learning and become productive in the society (Watson, Terrell, & Wright, 2008). The moment they get employment they will contribute to taxation and help return the assets to the government. By supporting students during and after the education process, the government creates an environment where the institutions are able to retain their undergraduates until they graduate to the labor market. Their performance is being observed by the college management to ensure that the available teaching and learning resources have sufficient and beneficial impacts. Engagement can also be achieved not just in class work, but through co-curriculum activities such as college sports, clubs and societies (Landry, 2004). In addition, they are also encouraged to run for elective student leadership positions, as those elected obtain the influence to advance the performance and interest of others in the educational activities.

The Notion of Student Engagement in HBCUs

Student engagement is a relative term that is applied to a degree of attention acquired by the operational effects within institutions that offer more than just classroom activities to their learners. Those who are engaged in the learning environment are likely to be strongly integrated with the participation and management of the institutional activities (Hale, 2006). Student engagement, therefore, implies the psychological and physical energy that one devotes to their academic experience. The level of such engagement is a substantial measure of the value of learning for the students, because it signifies their interest and motivation to continue learning in the particular institution (Yancy, 2015). Studies have shown that HBCUs undergraduates who are highly engaged in studying tend to interact with members of staff and participate in academic leadership. They also contribute to the athletic teams and are likely to be committed to the overall vision of the establishment.

Some say that the devoted students have a higher likelihood to be successful in their studies. As such, HBCUs must identify areas where they can achieve the required level of commitment as a part of social and academic integration, leading to promotion of retention and success (Hale, 2006). It, however, should be done in the early stages, as the longer they stay unobserved, the more difficult becomes the process of their proper integration. In detail, the ultimate results prove that those who are early integrated in the system of the college are likely to be more engaged in the activities of the institution and to be more inclined towards an achievement of higher retention rates. HBCUs must free themselves from obsolete methods of engagement, such as getting the commitment of students beyond the overall educational mission, instead, they can focus on popular programs and activities (Yancy, 2015). The management of HBCUs also needs to provide time and resources to promote creativity and commitment. Moreover, it should make every effort to strengthen the involvement of individual students that are vital for the contribution to the success and retention of fellow learners.


Colleges and universities that historically admit African American applicants have developed numerous programs to recruit, retain, and graduate their students. Even though these minority-aimed programs and services have succeeded to a large extent, there remains a great disparity in the retention rates of the majority of learners in universities and colleges around the country. In essence, the retention numbers in HBCUs have not improved significantly in the past years despite the resources distributed to the HBCUs. Therefore, HBCUs should use the information and facilities they have to identify learners with a risk of terminating the education and assist them to address the challenges they may be facing. In addition, intervention strategies should be implemented to help those who are likely to be dissociated from the co-curriculum activities and assure their positive experiences.