09/14/2012 12:14 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

Attracting the Best and Brightest: HBCU Honors Programs

Note: This post is based on a forthcoming study related to HBCU Honors programs and was co-authored with Claire Fluker (University of Pennsylvania), Felecia Commodore (University of Pennsylvania), and Darryl Peterkin (Morgan State University).

There is an abundance of research on academically underprepared students and their experiences at HBCUs. Likewise, there is a fair amount of research on developmental programs and the role that HBCUs play in empowering students who struggle in college. However, there is a lack of empirical research on high-achieving students at HBCUs, especially those that participate in honors programs. This lack of research creates a false understanding of the contributions of Black colleges, highlighting only their work with underprepared students and neglecting the experiences of high-achieving students and the meaningful efforts of honors program staffs.

HBCU honors programs vary by institution, but have a common mission of attracting and retaining high-achieving African American students. Of note, HBCU honors programs include peer and faculty mentoring, leadership development, an emphasis on community service, and a focus on personal as well as academic development. According to our research, the two factors that lead to successful honors programs are a supportive and engaged faculty and adequate funding to support the activities of the programs. HBCU honors programs are vital to the future success of HBCUs because they give these institutions the capacity to attract high-achieving students that are often pursued by wealthy historically White institutions. In addition, research shows that the presence of honors students on HBCU campuses can inspire and motivate non honors students to achieve and work harder on academics. Moreover, honors programs attract and maintain competitive faculty members.

Our research also shows that there is a need for HBCU honors programs to communicate with each other more often. HBCU honors program directors across the country face similar challenges and could learn much from each other. Furthermore, HBCU honors program directors and HBCU presidents should put forward a powerful narrative about honors programs in order to diversify and enhance the image of HBCUs. A full-throated endorsement of honors programs would encourage states to support these programs at public HBCUs and thereby provide incentives for high-achieving Black students to remain in their home states. A strong endorsement might also attract the attention of foundations, corporations, and individual donors as well. Donors tend to be motivated by success and there is much success to proclaim in HBCU honors programs. Lastly, increased federal support of HBCU honors programs could be an integral and tangible piece of President Obama's plan to make the United States first again in the world in terms of college completion by 2020.