By Alisa Valentin, Ph.D.
Howard University in Washington, DC
Just two decades ago, many of us could not have imagined a world where Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) would garner such nationwide attention. Institutions like Howard University, Spelman College, and Norfolk State University are the subjects of network news segments, sought after pit stops for political hopefuls, and the recipients of financial contributions from billionaires. Through these actions, people in this country, although delayed, have come to realize something that students, alumni, and even our favorite 1990s sitcom characters have known all along – HBCUs are the backbone of Black communities across the nation.
HBCUs are a source of social, economic, and political change. These institutions for higher learning are able to move mountains even though they are chronically under-resourced. HBCUs serve as community hubs across the nation because they invest in the people who live in surrounding neighborhoods and towns. As anchors of the community, upgraded broadband infrastructure will help HBCUs serve the needs of unserved and underserved communities that are too often overlooked or ignored. That is why it is imperative to invest in HBCUs in the digital age by (1) expanding access to broadband for students, faculty, and staff on and off campus and (2) creating opportunities to recruit and retain HBCU students and alumni in the technology and telecommunications sectors.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that access to affordable, reliable broadband is necessary to participate in modern life. It is the tool that we use to access educational platforms, create businesses, and remain connected to loved ones, no matter the distance. Despite the necessity of this tool, millions of Americans lack access to broadband, largely people of color, rural areas, and low-income populations. In HBCU communities, many of which are concentrated in the South, geographic location and income inequality compounds the impact of the digital divide.
Investing in HBCUs as well as their students benefits the nation. As history has shown us, the hallowed halls of these schools have served as training grounds to produce generations of civic-minded Black leaders in this country and in the larger diaspora that help support all communities. If technology and telecommunications companies, non-profit organizations, and government bodies actively recruit and work to retain HBCU students and alumni, there will be far-reaching economic and social benefits for people throughout the country.
It is past time for our broadband access and adoption, consumer data privacy, and platform competition policy efforts to reflect and center the needs of our most marginalized. During this year’s HBCU Week celebration, it is crucial that we use this moment to further the work of the communications and technology sectors with these institutions so we can ensure Black communities across this country are able to equitably participate in the digital age.