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marquee2 (The American Prospect) – Historically black colleges and universities played a heroic role educating African Americans during the long era when most institutions of higher education were for whites only. At a time when the society is nominally more open but deeper patterns of racial hostility are belatedly being exposed and discussed, HBCUs still have a major role to play. For many black students, they are safer and more nurturing places.

In his best-selling book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates observes that his own alma mater, Howard University—one of the oldest of the black universities—was “The Mecca” for African Americans. “On the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by police.” But “here at The Mecca, we are without fear, we are the dark spectrum on parade.” For countless others, the safety and affirmation of black universities has been a haven. The roster of notable black Americans who have attended HBCUs is astounding.

Rather than promoting a self-fulfilling prophecy of anticipated failure by black students, HBCUs offer black students the potential of a “stereotype safe” environment. Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that HBCUs provide black students with “an empowering, family-like environment of small classes, close faculty-student relationships, and life without the daily racial tensions experienced off campus.”

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Perhaps this helps to explain why under-resourced Xavier University in New Orleans is so remarkably efficient in producing black doctors. Xavier University, a historically black institution, has only about 3,000 students, yet leads the nation in black graduates who eventually complete medical school. Xavier achieves this success by countering social stigma and promoting expectations of success among their faculty and students, tailoring a curriculum that includes intensive hands-on instruction and peer-study groups, and fostering cooperative student environments free of racial hostility.

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