How HBCUs are responding to the flood of corporate diversity initiatives

Recruiting season is a bit different at Spelman College.
Recruiting season is a bit different at Spelman College.
Image: Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images
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Spelman College has always had a robust recruiting season, with around 700 recruiters from companies and graduate schools coming to campus over the course of an academic year. But last year, the school saw a similar level of interest in just one semester.

In response to last year’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following another spate of killings of Black Americans by police, various companies large and small have committed to recruiting fresh graduates, making donations, or finding other ways to get involved with America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Spelman.

Harold Bell, director of Spelman’s office of career planning and development, says his seven-person department has been flooded with emails and phone calls from hundreds of companies, each armed with a list of diversity recruitment initiatives. The increased outreach has been “stressful,” he says, as handling recruiters is only part of his office’s job.

It isn’t just placement officers who are being inundated as a result. Data from Handshake, a site that connects employers with colleges and college students, show that after George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota, HBCU students saw a 220% increase in the average number of messages they received from recruiters on the platform.

It’s hard to say what the long-term impact of such interest will be, but there are signs that the changing relationship between HBCUs and corporations could strengthen the universities and help make corporate America more inclusive.

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An HBCU recruiter partnership involves more than jobs

HBCUs were established prior to 1964, during a period of legal segregation in America, as a way to educate Black Americans who were shut out of other schools. As of 2018, the US had 101 HBCUs, which educate about 20% of America’s Black college students. Enrollment, which was once as high as 327,000 students, dropped 11%, to 292,000, between 2010 and 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Historically, HBCUs have had fewer resources and lower graduation rates than other US universities. They also typically have smaller endowments and have not been afforded the kind of eye-popping financial gifts received by non-HBCUs over the years; Harvard’s endowment is $40.9 billion, while Spelman’s endowment is $390 million.

A recent wave of donations made in the midst of America’s racial reckoning could help address the imbalance. In June, Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings and his wife, the philanthropist Patty Quillin, announced they were donating $120 million to support scholarships at HBCU’s, with $40 million earmarked for three institutions: Spelman, Morehouse College, and the United Negro College Fund. MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, reportedly pledged $260 million to 10 HBCUs as part of a huge gift for colleges serving historically marginalized Americans. And in Sept. 2020, IBM announced the creation of the IBM-HBCU Quantum Center, offering more than a dozen HBCUs access to its quantum computers, along with a $100 million investment in technology, other resources, and skills development for students at HBCUs.

Companies are also increasingly coming to campuses in an effort to diversify their workforce and being more intentional about working with HBCUs. Bell referenced a National Association of Colleges and Employers conference in February, where he says about 800 companies learned about what exactly HBCUs are and how they can support them. “I see companies being more intentional about really trying to get that information and that understanding,” he says. While schools like Spelman have always attracted a lot of attention from employers, he says, others are newer to the radar screens of corporate recruiters.

What form that attention takes is also shifting. “A lot of them like to use the word ‘partnership,'” says Bell. “It’s always been a recruiting term. But one of the things being in the pandemic has done with the word is challenging the definition of what that means.”

Bell says he’s been working with employers to explain that, from the school’s point of view, a partnership is not just about job openings and companies’ access to campus—it’s also about investing in scholarships, sponsorships, and infrastructure that supports students throughout their college careers.

“I tried to explain to recruiters—mostly corporations—it’s a no brainer: If we let everybody have the same level of access strictly based on the fact that they want to share jobs, we would never teach class,” he says. In other words, these companies could invest more in the universities themselves to keep refilling the talent pool.

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Growing pains

Catrina DosReis, the director of the career and professional development center at North Carolina Central University, another HBCU, says she’s seen more interest from employers in sectors including IT and pharma, which she says are looking to recruit and to provide skills training and support. “What we’ve been really looking at, though we are very excited about the interest, is that conversion to actual hiring,” she says. “We’ve yet to see that.”

She says that 60 organizations took part in a business and IT recruitment fair back in September, double the previous year’s participation. But the following month, the career center had a “sobering moment,” when the staff realized it couldn’t take all the inbound calls and wanted to make sure students were being matched with the right jobs.

“We need to be more intentional about what we’re doing here,” says DosReis. “So we’re now starting to have these conversations.”

Some employers had complained about students not showing up to the virtual event, DosReis says. She notes in response that many of the school’s students are dealing with burnout and that recruiting takes investment and time. “You have to be committed not just on campus, but just in…the macro-level of what surrounds HBCUs and our students of color,” she says. “And you have to be active, be present…not just at a career fair one time and [that’s] all.”

With many students coming from low-income households, she says it’s also important that recruiters go beyond the act of hiring, whether that’s paying for round-trip airfare for internships or providing a housing stipend, for instance. DosReis gives several example of companies that are doing more than recruiting: HomeFree USA, a non-profit organization, gave NCCU a $50,000 grant to create professional development programs as well as stipends to students facing hardships during the pandemic. Google gave $40,000 to help support the NCCU’s career development center. Dell helped pay for suits for business students who couldn’t afford professional attire.

Kimberly Scott, vice president of student affairs at Tuskegee University, says she started to see a different type of engagement last autumn, when more Fortune 100 and 200 companies were calling to ask how they could connect with students, volunteering to offer opportunities, and providing donations.

But Scott says the school has “redirected the conversation” to get a broader commitment from businesses. Her office will connect companies with academic departments and invite them to become part of the school’s business advisory council, which meets once a quarter to help formulate internships and co-op opportunities, as well as to provide guidance on academic preparation and soft skills preparation outside of class.

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A stronger pipeline?

The pandemic has made it easier for companies to come to campus virtually, according to the HBCU recruiting officers Quartz spoke with. The question now is whether this momentum will be sustained.

“I think it’s going to enhance our employment outcomes,” says DosReis. “I don’t think we want to go back to, like, begging and, you know, ‘shucking and jiving’ for employers to come on campus.”

DosReis is hopeful there will be more attention given to HBCUs—citing HBCU alumni like US vice president Kamala Harris and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams—and more interest in enrollment. “The country and the world are starting to be reminded” of what HBCUs have to offer, she says.