Every Learner Everywhere

What Predominantly White Institutions Can Learn from Tribal Colleges and Universities and HBCUs

Aajahne Seeney is a first-year elementary education major and Spanish minor who dreams of starting her own early childhood center. She says a historically Black college or university (HBCU) wasn’t always in her plans, but now that she’s at one — Delaware State University — she says, “If I had gone to a PWI [predominantly white institution], I would have faced more barriers.”

Seeney treasures the bonds she has formed with Black faculty who have experience in her chosen field. “The professor of my child development class focused a lot on identity,” she says. “She talked about experiences she went through as a child, and we could relate. We were laughing in the classroom, and we shared our experiences. She shared how her background made her a better teacher, and she’s talking to future teachers. That was the class I learned the most in.”

Seeney says the comfort she feels at an HBCU extends to her experience with white faculty. “They have a certain bond,” she explains. “Trust is a big part of teacher-student relationships that I don’t feel like you’re necessarily getting if you’re at a PWI and you’re a Black student. White professors may feel like they can’t relate, but at my school they can relate.”

A study by the Urban Institute characterizes HBCUs, along with tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), as “mission-driven MSIs [minority-serving institutions],” which may distinguish them from other MSIs that don’t have racial and ethnic equity in their culture from their founding. For example, the study included a survey of student satisfaction that found “students who attended HBCUs and tribal colleges value their educations highly, but not students who attended Hispanic-serving institutions.” The authors also cite scholarship showing that colleges and universities that have increased enrollment of minoritized students haven’t necessarily increased support for them.

Similarly, Cindy Lopez, Director of Tribal College and University Programs at Achieving the Dream, in What We Learn About Equity From TCUs, characterized TCUs as “equity-by-design institutions based on their location, the students they serve, their physical design, their approach to serving students, and cost.”

Asked what PWIs could learn from the equity foundations of TCUs, Lopez says, “Culture and context matter. I say that over and over again. That’s for all students. Having a better understanding of the culture and context of your students and asking the right questions are very important.”

In addition to having culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy baked in at TCUs, the work to confront, identify, and reduce racial barriers to equity is part of the culture of the institution in both academic affairs and student affairs, and in other operations. “It’s not just wraparound supports,” Lopez explains. “It’s developing relationships with students in an intentional way. It’s giving them increased and more frequent advising.”

Predominantly white institutions have diversifying student bodies

Erica Moore, Executive Director of Native Student Success at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), says the emphasis on culture can and should apply to historically white or predominantly white institutions with increasingly diverse student bodies. She points to the example of South Dakota State University’s American Indian Student Center. “Students there continue to see their enrollment and graduation numbers increase, the more they incorporate that into their campuses,” she says.

“Non-tribal colleges — all colleges — should have a culturally responsive way of engaging all students, meeting students where they are, having equity in retention, advising, and funding access for all students.”

Kristal Moore Clemons, the National Director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools Program, has helped launch online degree programs at two HBCUs. “The ethic of care and the commitment to history and culture is unique to HBCUs,” she says. “Because of the culture at these institutions, we look at the whole student. We look at the lived experience. We look at what’s going on in the home. We have a communal atmosphere based on access and opportunity, where we don’t want students to fall behind. Majority institutions can learn a lot from the access and opportunity.”

Predominantly white institutions need an ethic of care

Seeney says she has appreciated that ethic of care across campus at Delaware State. “Everybody is on the student’s side,” she points out. “Financial aid is a big part of me going to college, so it’s essential for me to go there and feel like I’m able to trust them and know how to handle these situations.”

Meanwhile, back in the classroom, she notices how personal connections with faculty lead to more personalization and flexibility. “One teacher always acknowledges that some students are working or in a situation that may not be perfect at home,” Seeney says. “So she would say, ‘You can just reach out to me.’ It makes you feel like your teacher wants you to succeed. Teachers who understand students have a lot going on in their lives are knocking down barriers.”

While Seeney is glad to be at an HBCU, she says much of what she is experiencing could happen elsewhere. “It comes down to understanding a student’s individual needs, because every student is different,” she explains. “One Black student is different from another, but it’s important to acknowledge it and not ignore it. Share your experiences and let students know you’re there for them.”

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