We must invest in Black colleges’ digital future

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Yolanda Watson Spiva is president and Dhanfu E. Elston is chief of staff and senior vice president at Complete College America, an organization focused on addressing inequities and performance gaps. They are alumni of HBCUs.

Historically Black colleges and universities are today receiving enormous amounts of resources — from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott’s transformative multimillion-dollar donations to billions of federal dollars flowing to HBCUs through COVID-19 relief funding. Though these investments in HBCUs are long overdue, they are still welcome developments that shine a well-deserved light on these institutions.

A headshot photo of Yolanda Watson Spiva

Yolanda Watson Spiva

Permission granted by Complete College America


HBCUs have a capacity for resilience and innovation that has gone unappreciated for far too long. They’re places where Black students thrive, often against long odds and a chronic shortage of resources. They make up only 3% of all colleges and universities in the United States, yet they produce 20% of our nation’s Black college graduates, a quarter of this country’s Black STEM graduates, half of all Black attorneys and 80% of Black judges. And as society and higher education have begun the long process of broadly acknowledging and dismantling systemic racism and injustice, they have sought support from HBCUs. 

We must invest in Black colleges' digital future

Dhanfu E. Elston

Permission granted by Complete College America


Black colleges and universities, which have too often been underfunded at a federal level and overlooked by the general public, are at long last beginning to get their dues. It’s time to share their value and uniqueness with the wider world. We need to move beyond the traditional — and in many ways tiresome — deficit-based understanding of HBCUs and toward an asset-based view of their innate strengths and potential. 

In fall 2021, Complete College America launched the HBCU Digital Learning Infrastructure Initiative alongside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to work with historically Black institutions to co-design a long-term strategy for building a foundation for successful digital learning. This initiative will invest in new digital technologies and practices that will play key roles in the future of the college experience — and provide a comprehensive view of how HBCUs are maintaining their digital cultures online. The rapid digitization of everything on campus, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has laid bare the stark structural inequities in digital learning infrastructure at HBCUs that threaten the progress of student success initiatives.

We need to move beyond the traditional — and in many ways tiresome — deficit-based understanding of HBCUs and toward an asset-based view of their innate strengths and potential.

We must invest in Black colleges' digital future

As we began this bottom-up effort to document and surface best practices, we saw the wisdom and insights of HBCU students, faculty and administrators. Every focus group, every interview and every campus visit reinforced our belief in the beauty and possibility of America’s Black colleges and universities. These institutions are demonstrating passion, creativity, innovation and hope. They are a breath of fresh air against higher education’s backdrop of change, challenges and uncertainty.

One crucial question confronted us at the beginning of this work: Given all this opportunity, what do we prioritize? Four key areas have emerged.


HBCUs are places where Black students experience a deep sense of belonging. Repeatedly, the students we’ve met described a sense of “home,” cited the importance of traditions and talked about the culturally affirming aspects of their campus experiences. 

Engagement between students and faculty, from shared meals to long conversations outside the classroom, plays a central role in creating this sense of belonging. Connection reaches all aspects of students’ lives, including academic and non-academic support as well as help to meet basic needs.

The difficulties of COVID-19 showed just how important belonging really is to students and families alike. It also revealed the difficulty of digitizing something so organic and personal. A key challenge for the Digital Learning Infrastructure effort will be translating a supportive campus environment into a digital learning space.


Given the prevalence of technology in our lives, it can be difficult to imagine a world in which basic connectivity is a barrier. On some HBCU campuses, especially those serving rural communities, access to technology can be more tenuous than it should be. 

Decades of underfunding have created large gaps in basic technology infrastructure — unstable or nonexistent campus Wi-Fi, outdated hardware, a lack of interoperability between data and software systems, and necessary systems that don’t talk to each other. This last-century technology leads to a lot of duplicated tasks and wasted time.

Moreover, student support is often spread across multiple portals, departments, hotlines and help desks, making it difficult for students to get the right resources at the right time. Given the number of academic, advising, financial, health and other resources available on any given campus, this disconnect leads to lots of time searching for assistance instead of providing it.

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