At the beginning of every new semester, I think back to my time as a student — the excitement that came with pouring over a new syllabus, walking into a new classroom, and meeting new professors. But, I also think about the times when I was the only, or one of a few, Black students in my classrooms; the syllabi that did not include work from any Black researchers or authors; and the professors who didn’t understand the importance of centering the lived experiences of all their students.
I attended a large, primarily-white public institution. The type of institution where minority students often speak about a feeling of isolation that comes with rarely seeing other students who look like you across campus. The feeling can be even more magnified for students of color who pursue a degree in a field where minorities are already scarce, such as computer science. This isolation may be one reason why, as enrollment numbers at most institutions continue to decline, enrollment has increased at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Throughout my career working directly with college students at institutions ranging from large state flagships to small HBCUs — and specifically with computer science departments — I’ve seen HBCUs lead the way in creating environments where Black students can thrive in these programs. What sets HBCUs apart is a commitment to creating a strong sense of community, an adaptable curriculum, and a focus on career readiness for the modern workforce. These qualities can be replicated at all kinds of institutions.
A Strong Sense of Community
Without representation, studies show that students are less likely to successfully complete a degree. While Black students are not a monolith, at HBCUs, they generally do not have to seek out professors or students who look like them in the classroom. Instead, they can shift their whole focus to their studies. Other institutions can give Black students the same opportunity by intentionally building a sense of community in departments where representation is lacking, creating spaces for students to proactively connect with professors, peers and resources.
Beyond connections and representation, HBCU professors also often take a deep personal interest in their students’ success. I’ve seen this personalized attention up close at an HBCU located in the Washington D.C. region, with one professor detailing how they will reach out to students one-on-one if they miss class, regularly invite students to lunch or coffee, and actively work to understand and accommodate their lived experiences outside of the classroom.
While HBCU students may report that their computer science courses are difficult, they are less likely to feel their university is trying to push them out of a major due to an overfilled program. In other words, HBCUs often spurn the idea of “weed-out classes.” Particularly popular in STEM programs, weed-out classes typically have high enrollment, are required for graduation and feature an abnormally high failure rate — mostly by design.
A lack of weed-out classes at HBCUs can likely be attributed to the tight-knit communities, smaller student populations, and the insider knowledge gained by faculty-student relationships. In addition to eliminating weed-out classes, these characteristics confer many benefits to students, as they allow HBCUs to be more in tune with the student body and its needs, and more open to experimentation and innovation in their curriculum. And since we know that Black and other minority students leave STEM majors at nearly twice the rate as white students, these efforts to adapt curriculum and community are critical to keep Black students in fields like computer science.
A Focus on Career-readiness
HBCUs prepare their students not only with the knowledge and skills to thrive in a tech career, but also set expectations about what it is like to work in spaces that may not look or feel like the HBCU they attended. When vetting company partnerships and career opportunities on behalf of their students, HBCUs ask questions like, “Are they going to be happy at the company they work for? Are they one of only a few Black people there? Does the company care about the progress and success of Black people beyond an entry-level position? Does the company take a stand politically when it matters?” Answering these questions is just as important as teaching technical skills to ensure students are ready for their post-graduation careers.
While HBCUs alone won’t solve broader societal issues, like a lack of diversity in the tech industry, they equip Black students with the preparation and skills that will help them succeed in careers that drive economic mobility. In the landscape of higher education, HBCUs offer a blueprint to empower Black students in majors like computer science through intentionally shaping community, being adaptable in curriculum and focusing on career-readiness — traits every institution should model to ensure their students succeed.
Tori Darby is senior manager of university partnerships at CodePath, where she oversees the organization’s relationships with computer science departments at HBCUs across the country, as well as with institutions in the Washington D.C.-area.