01/13/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2012

Class Conflict Puts HBCU Experience in the Crosshairs

Historically black colleges and universities will hold a peculiar designation for thousands of African-American high school seniors preparing for graduation in spring 2012. For some, HBCUs will be the ideal college option; a place to find the best education, the best social experience and most rewarding cultural experiment of their lives.

For others, HBCUs will provide an academic journey and destination, a roadmap that will hopefully reveal scholarships and affordability, admission standards that see beyond test scores and G.P.A.'s, and an institutional culture that fosters and demands maturity for those with unrealized potential.

And somewhere in the middle, some students from both sides will be deprived of the true value of the HBCU experience, which for too long has been an indirect casualty of class conflict through political, institutional and mission-based means.

For generations, political discrimination and under-representation deprived HBCUs of federal and state-allotted resources while predominantly white institutions flourished in program offerings, facilities and outreach capability. One of the first great post-segregation "victories" of the Black American middle class, composed of professionals once barred from PWIs and created in large part by opportunities and access provided by HBCU education, was the chance to send their children to these bigger and better-equipped PWIs in greater numbers.

The result -- a drought upon the black student talent pool that once flowed directly to HBCUs and back out into the communities that supported them.

Paltry resources and diminished enrollment forced HBCUs into survival mode in fiscal management and slowed institutional development, with critical resources in student services and programming taking the hardest hits. With minimal appropriations and nondescript alumni giving over the years, HBCUs have been cash-strapped to expand personnel and technology in critical areas like campus safety, financial aid, counseling, retention and remediation, student activities, and not surprisingly, Title III liaison offices.

And we wonder why horror stories about campus crime, unresponsive financial aid counselors, high dropout and low graduation numbers continue to be the defining ideals of the HBCU experience in pop culture and in Black communities nationwide. Even the most honorable aspect of HBCU culture, its mission-mandated commitment to enrollment opportunities for underprivileged and under-prepared students, is a victim of class warfare at levels great and small.

It's taboo in HBCU culture to talk about how much on-campus crime is committed by students from low-income households. Publicly attaching low-enrollment requirements, sinking graduation rates and soaring dropout rates to the segment of students from under-privileged neighborhoods and high schools passing them through to graduation is an outright sin. You'll never hear the most blunt and forthright HBCU president or chancellor admitting that one of the biggest issues facing financial aid efficiency is the effort to work with and retain students who regularly do not complete their annual FAFSA accurately or completely.

These aren't the only students responsible for perpetuating negative images of HBCUs. Students from affluent households and neighborhoods are as knuckle headed, as irresponsible and immature as their lower-income peers in helping to bloat negative HBCU stereotypes, particularly for retention when they grow weary of the "same ol' HBCU stuff" and transfer out of frustration.

The reality for HBCU supporters worldwide, discomforting or not, is that HBCUs have a mission to admit and produce excellence in spite of individual and cultural circumstances that aren't always conducive to the goal. Our tradition says that we can, but with exploding media proliferation and steadily shrinking resources being made available for institutional growth, the uphill battle to confirm and demonstrate HBCU value grows more difficult with every instance of incompetent leadership, fiscal mismanagement and disorganization.

The difference is, every article, YouTube video, blog post and editorial on these instances is globally viral in a matter of minutes.

We can all acknowledge that class conflict isn't exclusive to HBCUs or black communities. We know that it doesn't result in all-out riots or unrest on campuses, and it's universally understood that the level of its impact on the everyday life of any one student depends on the maturity and motivation of that student.

But socioeconomic factors have had, and continue to have significant cultural impact on the elements of the HBCU undergraduate experience. As recruitment efforts targeting black students increases in consistency and appeal from PWIs, online college and other higher education options, HBCUs must find a way to share their challenges with the communities that support them. They must reintroduce the mission of admitting the best and brightest and those students on the fringe of college readiness, informing everyone that the HBCU will continue to offer the best educational, social and cultural opportunity for all who pass through her doors.

The HBCU experience should not be a casualty of multi-tiered class warfare. It should be the stronghold that will grow to help usher in a new era of prosperity for the nation.