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HBCUs Excel at Supporting Black Students. Here’s Why Strengthening Their Career Outcomes Matters.

Faculty members from Jarvis Christian College and Florida Memorial University work on bettering their respective campus pilots to improve career outcomes for their students.


Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were founded with the principal mission to educate African-Americans, providing pathways to opportunities for a population that was systematically excluded from active participation in higher education. 

These institutions have been steadfast in their support of Black students, despite resource constraints due to a lifetime of underfunding compared to their predominantly White counterparts. At the Lab, we believe that if we can both enable traditionally under-resourced institutions to reimagine their programming and co-design with them new models to enhance career outcomes, we can scale these initiatives to positively impact all learners across the higher education ecosystem. In other words, designing for resource-constrained institutions and underserved learners—in human-centered design, we might say “extreme users”—will address the needs of the many. 

HBCUs are incredibly diverse: public and private, two-year and four-year, small and large, some religiously affiliated, liberal arts and research universities. Given this diversity, they are known for their rich institutional cultures and family environments. A 2015 Gallup study revealed that Black students who attend HBCUs are twice as likely to recall experiencing support measures than Black students who attend non-HBCUs. These support measures include having a professor who cared about them as a person, having a professor who made them excited about learning, and having a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. 

And, the payoffs are evident. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund notes that HBCUs are responsible for large percentages of African-Americans in prominent roles: 40% of Black doctors, 50% of Black engineers, 50% of Black lawyers, and  80% of Black judges are HBCU graduates.


Gallup USA- Funds Minority College Graduates Report, 2015: Black students who attend HBCUs are twice as likely to recall experiencing support measures than Black students who attend non-HBCUs.


Despite HBCUs’ successes in connecting Black students with opportunities, Black students still experience many barriers on the pathway from college to career. In ACE’s recent Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education Report, researchers found that Black students are among the most likely to receive financial aid, the most likely to borrow money to fund their education, and the least likely to complete their undergraduate education. Just last May, billionaire Robert F. Smith pledged to satisfy all student loans for all 400 members of Morehouse College’s Class of 2019, an attempt to best position graduates to start their careers without the financial strain of paying off college debt. For Black graduates, unemployment rates were also among the highest, and median annual earnings for bachelors’ earners age 25 and older were among the lowest. To address these long-standing opportunity gaps, the UNCF Career Pathways Initiative (UNCF CPI), launched in December 2015 and funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, partnered with 24 HBCUs and predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs) to develop sustainable programming to improve career outcomes for graduates. 

Over the past year and a half, the Lab has served as a technical assistance provider for a cohort of 14 institutions out of the UNCF CPI 24, leveraging human-centered design to prototype and test one pilot on each campus. The goal? Transformational impact on career outcomes for graduates. The pilots vary in size and scope, from actively engaging industry leaders in the curriculum design process at Tougaloo College to using the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Badges to convert traditional work-study jobs to “micro-internships” at Oakwood University.

Many of these initiatives are not new to higher ed. However, each pilot is designed and tested with the learner at the center—a co-design and iterative process that allows these initiatives to better address the learner needs on each campus. To these HBCUs, we’ve brought (and are still bringing!) our tools, design process, and expertise in education-to-work models to support this cohort of 14 institutions in engineering new approaches that will enhance career outcomes for their students.

Through this work thus far, we have identified four key learnings:

1. The thirst for demonstrating 21st Century skills is real.
Each of our design sprints with the 14 institutions made one thing clear: campus leaders have deep interest in ways to further develop their students’ 21st century skills. This interest among higher ed leadership is not new. Contrary to popular belief, however, students on our HBCU & PBI campuses understand and see a need for better developing these skill sets. At the University of West Alabama (UWA), a PBI, the Lab is supporting UWA’s core team to actualize UWA 201, an online second-year co-curricular experience. As part of the intake process for the new program, students were asked to identify which skills they most need to develop in order to be successful in their desired careers. Without prompting, students named communication, problem solving, and collaboration—the exact 21st century skills that employers are asking for.

2. Strengthening student employability starts with understanding the world of work.
HBCUs, like all colleges and universities, are mission-driven institutions focused on preparing students to become active and engaged citizens. If we are to redesign the models at each of our 14 CPI institutions to improve career outcomes, we need to create a collective understanding of the world of work that students are entering, now and in the future. To build this understanding, we turned to our gallery walk tool—a curated series of artifacts, journal articles, infographics, and other data sources—to inform campus leaders of the challenges that their graduates will face post-graduation. The result? Institutions identified key needs to build social capital, provide access to networks, develop skills, and promote career exploration as important cornerstones of improving student employability.

3. To enhance career outcomes, faculty and business leaders need to connect early and often.
Coming into this work, the entirety of our 14 institutions understood the importance of employer partnerships in addressing opportunity gaps. Together, we are actively exploring how these new relationships can be built and sustained over time at each campus. Tougaloo College, for example, is creating an employer resource council to foster regular communication between business leaders and faculty. This initiative has the potential to both directly connect students to jobs and build buy-in among faculty. 

Employer-institution partnerships are deepened when faculty are actively engaged in the process and can incorporate their learnings about employer needs into the classroom. Although learners on campus are the primary users in each pilot, faculty and employers must be considered as secondary users. Initiatives dependent on strong employer partnerships need to be responsive to employer needs so that they can, in turn, be responsive to learner needs.

4. Leveraging existing resources and institutional champions go a long way.
Addressing available resources is critical, especially for HBCUs that have been traditionally under-resourced and underfunded. To guide prototype development, we often turn to our Napkin Pitch tool. The Napkin Pitch acts as a guide for taking a big idea and narrowing in on who it serves and how we will know that it’s working. To confront historical disparities, we developed a second iteration of the tool: adding a “bring/build/buy” map to help teams narrow in on how their institution might leverage existing and new resources.


Our Napkin Pitch in action: LeMoyne-Owen College’s first iteration of their prototype for an online program focused on 21st century skills development.


In the same vein, building on-campus champions that leverage existing human capital is critical for designing new programs. Often, campus representatives were one or two staff members who were charged with advancing most of the CPI initiatives on their campus. As a result, when points of contact transitioned out of the institution, the work had to be restarted or stalled while new team members were onboarded. To promote continuity and build institutional support, we are working with each of our HBCU teams on capturing concepts and building champions that can advocate for projects from the design stages through implementation. At Xavier University, for instance, a partnership between the CPI director, Career Services, and faculty creates a shared approach to program implementation that spreads the responsibility across multiple stakeholders rather than focusing on the talents of one person.

Through our work with this cohort of 14 institutions, we have deepened our understanding of how human-centered design can be used to build innovation capacity and put learners at the center at institutions that are historically under-resourced. Despite their constraints, HBCUs have been a pathway to success for so many Black students and continue to provide safe, nurturing environments. By both enabling these institutions to rethink their programming and co-designing with them new models to enhance career outcomes, the consequences for all of higher ed are clear: positive impact for all learners across the higher education ecosystem. Our work over the last year and a half with UNCF Career Pathways Initiative has helped us to learn about how diverse the needs are at each institution. We look forward to sharing more lessons learned in a forthcoming white paper to be released in May 2020.

To learn more about the Lab’s work on UNCF’s Career Pathways Initiative, visit our project page