Pursuing a Terminal Degree at an HBCU

By: Karen Bussey, Howard University

Sanford (1966, 1968) developed the concept that students need a climate that fosters both challenge and support for student success to occur. Students who are overly challenged risk departure from the university, while students who are overly supported risk developing self-autonomy. The theory suggests that students need a balance to be successful while in college. This theory embodies the experience of pursuing a degree ꟷparticularly a terminal degreeꟷ at an Historically Black College and University (HBCU). HBCUs play a vital role in supporting educational opportunities for Blacks who otherwise historically have had limited access to many college (Redd, 2000).

Founded on the deeply rooted challenges of racial inequality, HBCUs have been a longstanding supportive and nurturing environment for Black students. Though HBCUs confer a relatively low amount of terminal degree awards each year ꟷa little less than 1 percent in 2016ꟷ, their contribution to affording advanced educational access to underrepresented minorities is indisputable (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2018). There is a persisting racial gap between those who attain a terminal degree. Blacks are the third least likely racial group to have earned a terminal degree according to data from the National Science Foundation. As of 2016, Blacks were 6.6 percent of all Americans who earned doctorates (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2018).

As a current doctoral student, I am now experiencing my second tenure as a student at an HBCU. My experiences while pursuing a baccalaureate and terminal degree at an HBCU has been different but equally impactful to my academic and professional development. My decision to choose South Carolina State University (SCState) for my undergraduate studies and Howard University for my doctoral studies came from a great sense of belonging and acceptance by both universities. Choosing an institution that was an HBCU was not necessarily the top criteria during my doctoral program search. I did consider an HBCU as a “plus mark” on my list of schools, but I was most interested in finding a program that included a large component of higher education policy curricula. Howard University’s Higher Education Leadership and Policy doctoral program was a “plus mark” and “gold star”. This first-of-its-kind program for an HBCU specializes in research on Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and included a rich component of policy into the courses.

HBCUs have a significant impact on higher education and the Black community according to research, however, research is limited in highlighting the experiences of graduate students during the educational pursuit. My colleagues have contributed to extending the voices of graduate students at HBCUs through recent works such as Graduate Education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): A Student Perspective. By sharing my experience pursuing a terminal degree at an HBCU, I can provide implications for current and future graduate students looking to gain diverse experiences during their doctoral studies. My experiences comprise of three salient themes: History and Culture, Challenge and Support, and Significance.

History and Culture. Elizabeth Whitt’s writing “Don’t Drink the Water?” introduced an understanding of university cultures and the precautions of entering a new university with quick judgement. Thus, I have generated the following philosophy: HBCUs have a rich history and culture that quite frankly cannot be duplicated or replicated BUT not all HBCUs are the same. Yes, many traditions are very similar but each HBCU has a unique culture. I learned within my first year of my doctoral program that I could not navigate Howard like I navigated SCState. I also learned that I could not expect the student life experience to be the same between the two. Both are great in different ways. I could, however, expect to be filled with “black excellence” and “black girl magic”.

Students engaged in programs at HBCUs can expect a curricula that is deeply infused with Black history and theoretical concepts framed with Black individuals in mind; for example history of Blacks in higher education, Critical Race Theory, and Black Feminism Thought filled the discussions during my first year. Learning diverse theories and discussing research from diverse authors has aided in my understanding of the literature from underrepresented scholarly viewpoints and in using literature to support my personal beliefs within the higher education political realm.

Challenge and Support. Doctoral students must have balanced levels of challenge and support much like the undergraduate experience described by Sanford. My HBCU doctoral experience has been met with many challenges primarily due to lack of resources ranging from funding to university infrastructure challenges. The common narrative of HBCUs using creativity to do more with less is very accurate. I personally believe attending and working at an HBCU must come with a high level of humbleness. Budgets aren’t as lucrative for some of the more lavish enrollment offerings that some Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) can offer. In fact, data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16) shows a nearly $1000 gap in average total grant/fellowship awards between graduate students at HBCUs and Non-HBCUs.

Despite challenges, my experience at HBCUs has shown a strong value in support. My professors do not hesitate to meet and discuss questions, concerns, or constructive criticism transparently. My cohort members and I are highly encouraged to pursue our goals and to WRITE; even when we are all worded out. Similar to the K-12 space, doctoral students of color can gain boundless encouragement to make it across the doctoral finish line when they have faculty role models of similar racial/ethnic background. Unfortunately, this was absent in my master’s program at a PWI. Howard fills that void particularly in its exposure to black and latino professors. Simply, my experience has been that HBCUs support students in being unapologetic to showcasing their cultural norms proudly.

Significance. Pursuing a terminal degree at an HBCU is a reminder of its significance to my family and the Black community. One of the most joyous times at an HBCU apart from homecoming is graduation day. HBCU graduations can be a celebration, family reunion, church testimonial time, and motivational workshop all in one. There is great significance every year in seeing an arena full of Black graduates all dressed in their garments defying odds and contributing to the educational work of our ancestors. Graduations at an HBCU align with supporting diverse expression and do not confine graduates and guests to what “pomp and circumstance” should look like. Pursuing a terminal degree at an HBCU redefines for me what advocating for equity, diversity, and access in higher education really means and the impact for underrepresented minorities.

It is rational to understand that not every graduate student will attend an HBCU for their doctoral studies. However, by sharing my experience pursuing a terminal degree at an HBCU, I can provide implications for current and future graduate students looking to gain diverse experiences during their doctoral studies. Students who are current doctoral students or those searching for doctoral programs have many ways to engage with HBCUs. Current and future students can:

  • Partner with an HBCU to become knowledgeable about this specific institutional type
  • Take a class at an HBCU if the opportunity exists either through a consortium agreement, elective course, or online course
  • Ask to be a visiting guest to sit-in or skype-in on a class that compliments a current course you are taking at your home institution
  • Attend educational and social workshops or events at an HBCU if class experience is not an option

Doctoral students, especially those studying higher education, can benefit from learning the unique ways HBCUs educate and engage Black students as use cases to create culturally inclusive curricula and campus spaces. I hope my experience, though not generalizable, extends the voices of graduate students at HBCUs.

Karen Bussey is a higher education strategist who works with and for historically underrepresented students in higher education. Her work aims to promote access, persistence, and inclusive experiences for underrepresented students in higher education. Currently, she is a doctoral student in the Higher Education Leadership and Policy Studies program at Howard University and a policy research analyst at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Her current doctoral research focus includes the history and role of HBCUs, postsecondary data, college access and affordability, and racial politics within higher education. Follow her on Twitter at @MissKaeBee.



Redd, K.E. (2000). HBCU Graduates: Employment, Earnings, and Success after College.

Indianapolis, IN: USA Group Foundation.

Sanford, N. (1966). Self and society: Social change and individual development. New York: Atherton.

Sanford, N. (1968). Where colleges fail: A study of student as person. San Francisco: JosseyBass.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. (2018). Doctoral Awards at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from https://www.jbhe.com/2018/04/doctoral-awards-at-historically-black-colleges-and-universities/

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. (2018). The Persisting Racial Gap in Doctoral Degree Awards. Retrieved from https://www.jbhe.com/2018/03/the-persisting-racial-gap-in-doctoral-degree-awards-3/



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