Roslyn Clark Artis grew up in southern West Virginia, the only African American in her graduating class. The daughter of a coal miner, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer and applied to every public university in her home state, hoping to find an affordable route to college.

She was set to enlist in the U.S. Air Force to take advantage of military tuition assistance. But then West Virginia State University offered Artis a full scholarship.

“That’s it,” Artis recalls thinking. “I’m not going to be sworn in on Tuesday. I’ve got my ticket to college. I’m going.”

It was a decision that would change the trajectory of her life, expose her to the legacy of historically Black colleges and universities, and lead her to a career that would become her passion.

Today Artis is president of Benedict College, a 2,000-student historically Black college in Columbia, South Carolina, a role that positions her to tell the story of what HBCUs do for their students and the nation. And that story — how HBCUs drive economic mobility and degree attainment for Black Americans — is critically needed now as postsecondary education reckons with enrollment declines and how to meet the needs of students who traditionally have been underserved by higher education.

“Historically, HBCUs were institutions for people who couldn’t go anyplace else,” Artis said. “But we long ago outgrew that narrative of being the only option for African Americans. We’re a really good option.

“Instead of telling stories about students who wouldn’t have an opportunity otherwise,” she continued, “we started telling stories about how we punch above our weight.”

HBCUs produce 20 percent of Black college graduates in the United States, even though they account for only 10 percent of all Black students who are enrolled.

HBCUs also prepare graduates for notable roles in public service. More than 70 percent of Black doctors and dentists and 80 percent of Black judges earned their bachelor’s degrees at HBCUs. Forty percent of Black Americans who hold seats in the U.S. Congress are HBCU graduates. Half of Black public school teachers are, too.

Yet as UNCF President and CEO Michael Lomax pointed out in a recent piece for The Atlantic, non-minority-serving four-year institutions receive eight times as much per student in private gifts and investment than minority-serving, four-year institutions. The discrepancy amounts to $860 per student compared to $6,600 per student, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

This year, Artis served on Strada’s HBCU Advisory Council, a group of current and former HBCU presidents and chancellors who shaped and defined the new Strada HBCU Initiative, a $25 million investment that recognizes HBCUs as significant drivers of degree attainment and economic mobility.

Twenty-eight HBCUs will partner with Strada in the inaugural 2021-22 academic year. The initiative is open to all HBCUs and seeks to support their existing success — and extend it.

So what is distinctive about the HBCU experience that other colleges and universities can learn from and emulate?

Students of color see Black professionals in leadership positions at HBCUs.

That distinction is especially important for students who attend HBCUs: More than 70 percent are Pell Grant-eligible, and two-thirds are first-generation college students. These students are less likely to have role models who understand what higher education can do for the arc of their lives and their families’ well-being, said Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University.

“Students see themselves in the support system they’ve decided to use,” said Allen, whose university is one of the 28 HBCUs partnering with Strada in the HBCU Initiative. “We reflect a bit of the culture they come from. We look like people who might be their aunties, uncles, mothers, and fathers — and we are demanding excellence in all they do as they take this next step.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2018 about 75 percent of HBCU students are Black. And while the first year of college is an adjustment for nearly everyone, HBCU leaders note that their campus environment makes the transition easier for students of color.

“It’s a welcoming environment because they don’t have to assimilate,” Artis said. “They can simply be.”

Most HBCUs surround students with the kind of support they need to succeed in — and complete — college.

At Delaware State, faculty and administrators work to instill a sense of students supporting one another.

“We say that we’re all going to make it,” said Vita Pickrum, president of the Delaware State University Foundation and vice president for institutional advancement at the university. “We really put out that mantra: Look to your right, look to your left — we’re all going to make it. Not one of you is not going to be here in four years.”

About eight years ago, Delaware State noticed a significant dropoff in its first-year retention scores, a measure of how many first-year students continue on to a second year of college and an indicator of future graduation rates. The university reacted by developing a more deliberate advising model, with touch points throughout the academic year.

“It gives us the opportunity to give them the supports they need,” Allen said, noting that the needs can range from social adjustment issues to mental health concerns. “I do think that’s distinctively different from what you would find at other colleges and universities.”

Those supports that surround and lift a student can take unusual forms, Artis noted. For example, when the campus shut down in-person classes in March 2020 during the onset of the pandemic, Benedict College paid for students’ transportation home.

“We knew they didn’t have families who could immediately pay for a plane ticket or take a day off work in the middle of the week from their low-wage job to pick them up,” Artis said. “We had a 24-hour shuttle service to get these kids home safely. Luggage, food subsidies for a long layover — we looked beyond the obvious expenses. That would not be normal for a normal college campus.”

Even today, the missions upon which HBCUs were founded generate pride and connect students to a sense of purpose.

HBCUs were founded to provide education to Black Americans at a time when doors to other institutions of higher education were closed to them. Their founding missions often were intertwined with service to others — an origin frequently credited for producing HBCU alumni who dedicate their lives to public service, such as Kamala Harris, Thurgood Marshall, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Our history is what makes us proud and keeps us tethered to our ultimate mission, which is education equity for all,” said Allen.  Reinforcing his point, Allen notes that at Delaware State, the modern vision for “education equity” includes admitting dozens of “Dreamers” — students who were brought to the United States as children but grew up as undocumented immigrants.

Recently, dozens of middle school students who visited the Delaware State campus were greeted by the school’s drumline and a message from Allen, who has been appointed by President Joe Biden to chair the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“When I got up, the first thing I said was, ‘This institution was built 130 years ago for you — for people who look like you, who know the challenges and experiences you come from, and who know how to build on that,’” Allen recalled. “Once you leave this campus, you’ll have a responsibility to give back.”

This year, HBCUs nationwide have benefited from unprecedented levels of fundraising and report record-breaking donations, led by philanthropist Mackenzie Scott, who donated $500 million to a dozen HBCUs.

The fallout from a global pandemic, racial unrest, and the divisive 2020 election seemed to point to HBCUs as one pillar of American society that can make a meaningful difference that could endure for generations.

Allen said the time is right to build on the success of HBCUs — and for HBCUs to demand their fair share.

“It’s often said HBCUs do more with less, which is true,” Allen said. “But we have to stop accepting less.”

In the news from Strada