Betsy DeVos Suggests HBCUs Are ‘Pioneers’ Of ‘School Choice’

Betsy DeVos suggested historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, are the “real pioneers” of “school choice” following a meeting with academic leaders on Monday. Although the comment was clearly meant to be a compliment, critics are concerned that the education secretary is ignorant of the fact that HBCUs were founded because many black students were not permitted to enroll at traditionally white colleges in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Contrary to Betsy DeVos’ statement, historically black colleges and universities were not established to give black students an alternative choice — they were established because a majority of black students did not have any other choice.

As reported by, “higher education for African American students was virtually nonexistent” prior to the Civil War. Although some institutions, including Ohio’s Oberlin College, permitted black students to enroll, a vast majority of American universities were off-limits to black students.

Following the conclusion of the Civil War, then-Senator Justin Morrill sponsored the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which increased the number of public higher education institutions throughout the United States.

Unfortunately, a majority of the colleges and universities established under the act were either closed to or “uninviting to” black students. Therefore, the Morrill Land-Grant Act was revised in 1890 to stipulate “that states using federal land-grant funds must either make their schools open to both blacks and whites or allocate money for segregated black colleges to serve as an alternative to white schools.”

A total of 16 higher education institutions were established exclusively for black students Under the revised Morrill Land-Grant Act. Several other black colleges, which were sponsored by organizations including the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau, were established throughout the south in the late 1800s and early 1900s to serve the freed slaves and their children.

Historian Marybeth Gasman confirmed many of the HBCUs “started in church basements… in old schoolhouses… in people’s homes” and were initially established to “provide just basic primary and secondary education” to freed slaves and their children. However, by the early 1900s, the institutions evolved to become some of the best in the nation.

According to reports, HBCUs “trained the lion’s share of the nation’s black doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers and other professionals” during the first half of the 20th century.

As reported by, more than 100 of the historically black colleges and universities are still open today.

Although the institutions were founded to provide an education to black students, who had few options at the time, a vast majority of HBCUs have an increasing number of non-African American students. US News reports historically black colleges and universities appeal to a wide variety of students because the tuition is often cheaper than other universities. However, they often provide an exemplary education.

Unfortunately, many historically black colleges and universities are struggling with financial instability. On Monday, President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVoss met with leaders of the HBCUs to discuss the ongoing issues.

Following the conclusion of the meeting, Betsy DeVos released a statement, which called historically black colleges and universities “pioneers when it comes to school choice.” Although her statement was likely meant to be a compliment, critics are complaining that it was short-sighted.

As reported by ABC News, school choice implies an option, which black students in the late 18th and early 19th centuries simply did not have. In fact, HBCUs were founded because black students did not have a choice.

According to the Department of Education, “At a time when many schools barred their doors to black Americans, these colleges offered the best, and often the only, opportunity for a higher education.”

On Tuesday, Trump is expected to sign an executive order to “move” the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities from the Department of Education, which is headed by Betsy DeVos, back to the White House. According to CBS News, President Trump expects the move to give the initiative “greater visibility” and to encourage cooperation with other agencies.

[Featured Image by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images]

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