Rethinking Town & Gown: How HBCUs Bring Communities Together Through Economic Impact, Workforce, and Diversity

A thriving community is defined by more than just fiscal success; rather, this type of rich community offers benefits, resources, and support that assists its citizens, helping them flourish and ultimately succeed. That said, community is one of the key components that exemplifies the HBCU experience. HBCU campuses do more than merely survive; they thrive, and not just alone.

They do so together. In addition to reaping the many benefits of an environment that feels more like an extended family than just a college campus, the HBCU alumni network is a directory that keeps on giving for life. A plethora of opportunities, professionals, affiliations, and expertise all lay right at the fingertips of one attending an HBCU. Extending that sense of community to local and workplace communities, as well as to ethnically diverse communities of students, is not only a logical extension of the HBCU mission but one desperately needed for growth and upward mobility.

HBCUs are an untapped resource for growing local economies and expanding workforces with diversity, all while integrating and developing new ways of branding these institutions. Capitalizing on this connection along with local businesses, community partnerships, and non-profit organizations in the area is sure to give these entities a significant advantage in their efforts. When they diversify their employees, fresh connections and new ideas will keep them afloat when others fall to the wayside while refusing to broaden their own horizons.

Companies forming alliances with the HBCUs in their communities can extend their branding by sponsoring sporting events, facilitating internships, participating in educational programs, as well as attending college job fairs and mentioning students. Specifically, a local company offering internships can get a head start on grooming future employees who may or may not return for careers. Not only does this establish a future investment for quality employees, but for those who choose not to return, there still remains a built-in professional bond with whichever organization the intern goes to after graduation.

There is no better way to keep up with the ever-growing changes in industry than by introducing a steady stream of young minds who are sure to propel companies forward by way of new hires, interns, community summits, and more. Some top corporations are capitalizing on it. Google has focused its recruitment efforts on HBCU students. The company initially spearheaded a program that began with 26 Howard University students who were selected for a three-month residency at a Silicon Valley headquarters. In addition to them increasing this to a full-year program, it has also been picked up by other HBCUs as an initiative to attract more black technical workers to Google. Recognizing this impact and opportunities that HBCUs present to the surrounding communities is a smart move for any business, industry or company.

Whether previously associated with the university through attendance or not, it is a way to become affiliated with all of the benefits that many HBCU alumni already receive. In addition to its broadening diversity, HBCUs are also increasing the diversity in key fields, such as technology and careers in STEM. This was further exemplified by Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) spearheading a summit sponsored by the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus on Diversity in Tech, which brought officials from 25 HBCUs in to meet with representatives from 35 leading tech companies to discuss recruitment of HBCU students.

Producing a growing number of STEM graduates, a concentration of better programs, and the economic cost of attendance has resulted in more diversity in HBCU student bodies, and greater impact across many communities, geographically and philosophically speaking. In a day where education costs are soaring while wages remain stagnant, it brings to mind the word opportunity. Many students who are disenfranchised and underprivileged are still given a shot at an education, largely because the college costs are more reasonable at HBCUs. Many students who choose HBCUs wouldn’t have the chance to pursue higher education without Pell Grants.

According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “there are eight HBCUs at which more than 90 percent of all students receive Pell Grants.” This solidifies the point that thriving communities benefit when HBCUs offer opportunities for its citizens to develop the skills to help those communities prosper. This is yet another selling point on how the HBCU model has so much to offer communities across the country, even ones where there is no HBCU presence.

HBCUs have provided a longstanding resource for communities seeking to flourish by embracing diversity as a catalyst that produces sustainable growth, both economically and socially. As Richard Florida, editor at large at The Atlantic asserts, “Geographic proximity and cultural diversity—a place’s openness to different cultures, religions, sexual orientations—also play key roles in economic growth.” This openness is the bridge that leads to a thriving community. The more HBCUs collaborate with their communities to identify workplace solutions and opportunities for students to produce them, the better off we’ll all be.

Adriel Hilton, Ph.D. is Dean of Students and Diversity Officer at Seton Hill University.

William Broussard, Ph.D. is the Associate Vice President of Advancement at Minnesota State University-Mankato.