Turning HBCU Pride into HBCU Profitability By : Richard McCulloch

Turning HBCU Pride into HBCU Profitability


As a Freshman at Howard University in the mid-1980’s, my favorite place to visit was the centerpiece of “The Yard” and a monument to student scholarship, Founders Library. In between classes, I would often walk the halls of Founders taking in the photographs that lined the walls depicting Howard students and professors from days long past. There was a powerful dignity in the images of well-groomed students and scholarly faculty members engaged in the pursuit of knowledge while the benefits of constitutional rights and protections still eluded them. 

The necessity of these institutions during and after Reconstruction was clear, but in recent years HBCU’s have been challenged financially and with perceptions that question their relevance, management and in some cases academic competitiveness. 

With a more integrated society emerging post-Civil Rights movement, access to mainstream colleges and universities effectually diluted the pool of prospective HBCU students as African Americans exercised their ability to access a wider variety of postsecondary education options. 

Though HBCU enrollments were not immediately compromised after this expanded access to universities, as noted in a Debtwire article earlier this year, there has been an impact: 

“Through 1980, enrollment grew at HBCUs, but that has changed as more black students look to “traditional or mainstream” universities, said Richard Vedder, professor emeritus at Ohio University. The false perception is that the mainstream schools provide better programs or more opportunities upon graduation, which implies HBCUs are medium-to-low quality institutions, he said.”

While a shrinking pool of high school age students has added to the decline of traditional students entering postsecondary institutions across all sectors, HBCU’s have had additional challenges when it comes to financial stability and the affiliated accreditation issues that come with fiscal uncertainty. As Harry L. Williams of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund observes; 

“The challenge has been some accreditation issues, as it relates to finances, because a lot of them are dependent on tuition to stay in business and if you don’t have enrollment numbers, it can put stress on the system,” Williams said.”

The rich legacy of HBCU’s as an incubator for some of this country’s most accomplished African Americans should serve as a testament to the importance of these institutions. While not every graduate will become a Thurgood Marshall or an Oprah Winfrey, data indicates that African Americans graduating from an HBCU do evidence some tangible benefits beyond cultural comfort and acceptance: 

Janelle Williams, a visiting scholar at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that black students at HBCUs often outperform black students that attended predominately white institutions. For instance, black students at HBCUs are more likely to go on to graduate school than those who attend other schools, Williams said.”

To counter their financial challenges some HBCU’s may consider consolidations, mergers and even closure as viable solutions. The unique origins and contemporary relevance of HBCU’s should instead inspire a commitment to cultivating fiscal independence with a focus on effective marketing strategies to increase enrollments and drive tuition revenue. 

Looking at each HBCU with “fresh eyes” is the first step in revaluating how to market these valuable institutions and how they can best implement student focused marketing and admissions strategies that lead to profitability and sustainability. Some specific strategies that should be considered include: 

Targeting Non-Traditional students: Despite some nuances in the data collection process, there is a verifiable and motivated audience of older students seeking postsecondary education opportunities for career growth and quality of life enhancement. Supplementing the traditional student marketing and enrollment focus with strategies that attract and engage non-traditional students is an opportunity for HBCU’s intent on growing their populations. 

Integrated Marketing Strategies: Meeting your prospective students where they are, is a Higher Ed marketing imperative in this digital age. While traditional media (outdoor advertising, print, etc.) may lend itself to brand awareness or promote campus activities; digital marketing channels such as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for institutional websites, as well as Paid Search and Paid Social ads need to be considered as part of an effective marketing mix for an HBCU seeking to scale prospect engagement and enrollment conversions.

Implement Storytelling: Every HBCU has a story worth telling. Whether it be the legacies of notable alumni or contemporary strides in STEM education, value-driven storytelling has become a mainstay of effective marketing. Integrating storytelling in a Public Relations strategy or on social media platforms, brings the rich and robust HBCU experience to life and becomes an engaging value proposition to prospective students. 

There is a tremendous opportunity for HBCU’s to reset when it comes to their Marketing and Admissions strategy. With data showing that HBCU enrollments grew by 2.1% in 2016-2017, amid declining enrollments throughout Higher Education, the time is now to leverage HBCU pride into HBCU profitability. 

With enduring memories of Howard University and now a career in student-focused Higher Education marketing, I invite all HBCU’s to reach out to me directly to discuss the strategies presented here. Give me a call at 954-495-0932 or send me an email at rm@tribecamarketinggroup.com to start a conversation and explore solutions.