How Historically White Institutions Have Excluded Historically Black Colleges Through Lack of Recognition As Peer Organizations

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Reviewed by LaShyra Nolen


In this study, the authors highlight the ways in which Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs) have been marginalized by Historically White Institutions (HWI) through social closure (systemic exclusion) and lack of reciprocity (lack of mutual recognition). The authors demonstrate how the academic legitimacy of HCBUs has been systematically withheld by HWIs through the lack of recognition as peer institutions.

While some may judge HCBUs as self-segregating and underperforming institutions, the authors reject this notion by demonstrating that HBCUs as equal, productive contributors to higher education. They highlight how, in 2015, the 100 federally designated HBCUs awarded 15% of all bachelor’s degrees granted to African Americans and 40% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees granted in 2000. Similar trends can be observed in the number of Black physicians that have trained at HBCUs. HBCUs have been successful in serving Black communities despite experiencing federal and state-level systemic exclusion, which includes financial underfunding.

The authors highlight the aforementioned data within the historical context of HCBUs, specifically regarding how HCBUs were birthed. HBCUs were created out of the need to educate Black students due to the de jure and de facto segregation that denied them access to educational opportunities (elementary to post-secondary) reserved for white people. Today, HCBUs continue this mission, but their recognition as “true universities” will hinge on disrupting the power dynamics of HWI as the grantors of academic legitimacy. Graham Miller was a senior research analyst focusing on higher education policy at Brandeis university when this study was published. Freda B. Lynn is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa and conducts research on status and inequality using a variety of methodological approaches. Laila L. McCloud is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at Grand Valley State University, and her research focuses on the use of critical theories and methods to broadly explore the professional and academic socialization of students within U.S. higher education.

Methods and Findings

Postsecondary institutions use comparison groups to declare their prestige, position, and place within the academic landscape. Comparison metrics include, but were not limited to, research funding, number of faculty, athletic leagues, and admission standards. These metrics are useful for assessing similarities and differences and enable institutions to communicate their status as an institution. This study seeks to understand how racialized identities and social closure marginalize HBCUs in this comparative system.

The authors sought to answer three primary questions:

1.)   Relative to other known institutional differences in the field of higher education (liberal arts vs. STEM, private vs. public, etc), how rigid is the boundary between HBCUs and HWIs?

2.)   Is the border between HBCUs and HWIs maintained by HWIs seeking distance from HBCUs or vice versa?

3.)   Why do HWIs fail to reciprocate HBCU efforts to be identified as peer institutions? 

The authors use an analytical framework to answer the questions noted above; the framework utilized both observations of dyad creations (reciprocal nomination between two institutions) and social exclusion (the lack of creation of dyad creations between HWIs and HBCU).

The data collection strategy consisted of observing reported comparison groups — groups of institutions one recognizes as peer institutions — in the 2015 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS is a federal database of survey data administered with information from all universities that receive federal aid.  In this database, institutions can create custom “peer groups” that consist of institutions they nominate for comparison. Because there are no specific guidelines given for the nomination and subsequent creation of peer groups in the database, this can reveal patterns and biases in how institutions include and exclude certain institutions from their network of peers in reality. To demonstrate this, the researchers tracked the reciprocation of nominations for the creation of peer groups (a proxy for the recognition as a peer institution) of HWIs while controlling for the rank and prestige of nominations by HBCUs.

Researchers found that HBCUs have difficulty integrating into peer groups because of the lack of reciprocity of nominations, suggesting they would like to be compared to HWI but are forced to be viewed as separate entities. Notably, they found that HBCUs collectively nominate almost

50% non-HBCUs in their peer groups, but only 6% of those nominations are reciprocated. They also found that there was no evidence HBCUs make overly aspirational peer nominations generally, meaning HBCUs rarely nominated institutions that were above their rank in quality and prestige.


This study demonstrates the ongoing exclusion of HBCUs from the peer network of HWIs. It most importantly reveals that the observed self-segregation of HBCUs is not due to their own preferences, but occurs because of the lack of reciprocal peer nomination that indicates how HWIs undervalue HBCUs. Even after controlling for the status quality (looks at the admission rates, competitiveness, etc. to compare and status score between institutions) of the nominating HBCU, HWIs were still less likely to reciprocate a nomination by an HBCU. This highlights how the lack of recognition of HBCUs as peer institutions to HWIs is most likely related to their systemic exclusion rather than the quality of the institutions themselves. 

The authors encourage policymakers to consider the following: 

  • Recognize the richness and academic rigor of HBCUs beyond their commitment to Black students, as this impacts how they are valued in the landscape of academia.
  • HWIs and the academic landscape lose out when they fail to recognize the significant expertise of HBCUs. The institutional knowledge at HBCUs should be viewed as an asset.
  •  Valuing HBCUs as peer institutions can lead to new, more equitable metrics by which all academic institutions can be assessed and valued. These new equitable metrics have the opportunity to improve education for all communities.

HWIs play a critical role in changing the narratives of academic legitimacy—it is up to them to take on this moral imperative.


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