Lumina Foundation is supporting new work at the intersection of higher education and racial equity by funding HBCUs to identify and eliminate some of the barriers blocking adult students from the education they need for long-term success.As part of its portfolio of initiatives focused on adult learners, the foundation’s HBCU Adult Learner Initiative (ALI) will support five historically Black colleges and universities in North Carolina. It’s a $2 million effort over the next two years to build the capacity of HBCUs to serve adults.

This fits with our strategic plan, which recognizes how centuries of unfair policies, actions, and assumptions have held back people of color and continue to do so. Lumina’s equity-first approach places our commitment to racial justice—and quality learning—at the center of everything we do. We know that racial disparities are widening, and that this denies too many people a fair shot at economic opportunity and participation in society. To address this, we must dramatically expand access to post-high school education with strong financial, social, and academic supports.

Those who stand to benefit from our efforts include the 7 million Black adults without a post-high school education, and HBCUs are perfectly poised to serve this diverse and growing population, as they have always done.

We selected the schools for this initiative for their adult-friendly commitment to equitable results:

  • Elizabeth City State University will develop comprehensive student support services, including life and career planning, technology support, and a new living-learning community for adult students.
  • Fayetteville State University will improve the transfer credit process for military students and adults relocating from community colleges.
  • Johnson C. Smith University will create an integrated campus services environment that is adult learner friendly.
  • Shaw University will revise its ‘Credit for Prior Learning’ policies so adult students can more easily access CPL credits and graduate faster.
  • Winston-Salem State University will launch a degree completion program and related support services to help adult students succeed in academics, professional development, and personal growth.

North Carolina is an excellent setting for this work: The state has seen above-average increases in degree attainment for Black adults, with a 6.9 percentage-point gain between 2009 and 2019. As of 2019, North Carolina’s degree attainment for Black adults was 33%, slightly above the national average. Moreover, North Carolina is home to 13% of the nation’s HBCUs, and those schools award 43% of Black undergraduate degrees in the state. North Carolina, now at 52% overall attainment, is working toward a goal of 66% attainment for adults ages 25-44 by 2030.

Our timing is important: A renewed national focus on racial justice has led to greater awareness about the strengths of HBCUs to serve adults and contribute to workplace diversity. But while the interest is new, the unwavering commitment from HBCUs is not: Before the desegregation of higher education in the 1950s and 60s, almost all Black college students enrolled at HBCUs. But while these institutions have the cultural wealth to serve Black adults well, they have never received the financial resources they deserved, due to well-documented historical underfunding and defunding.

In developing this initiative, we worked with former HBCU presidents and HBCU scholars, and embedded two advisory consultants, Dr. Steve D. Mobley, Jr., and Dr. Krystal L. Williams, to provide guidance during the project. Dr. Nadrea Njoku is at the helm of the evaluation of the initiative led by United Negro College Fund’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute (FDPRI). Dr. Kathy Thompson, an HBCU and workforce development expert, will lead a team to provide technical assistance to the five institutions. Lastly, journalist Autumn Arnett will help tell the story of this work and elevate the stories of Black adults at HBCUs more broadly.

As we begin to form a community of practice for the institutions to learn together, we’ll hold a kickoff HBCU ALI convening on Monday, Oct. 4 featuring a keynote address from Dr. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University.

We know this effort is part of a larger surge of long-overdue funding and attention for HBCUs. We hope the recent influx of funding to HBCUs continues, and that those with resources prioritize assistance for these places of refuge for Black students. These institutions are an important part of the higher education ecosystem undergoing dramatic changes to better serve today’s students.  With the right support, we know these institutions will continue to do what they have always done—unabashedly center and serve Black students.

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