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Honors programs at historically black colleges and universities.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were first established in the United States many years ago to meet the educational needs of blacks who were disenfranchised by the predominantly white population of the country. Qualified blacks were prevented from attending colleges and universities both public and private owned and operated by whites. This was so whether the universities and colleges were public or private. Blacks, therefore, had to take charge of educating their own. The first HBCU, Cheyney State University was established in 1837. Over the years, even with competition from the increasing number of white institutions of higher learning, HBCUs have continued to survive and to perform well. At present there are 106 HBCUs devoted to the needs of black students. The last one, Morehouse School of Medicine, was established in 1975.

Although black students can attend any university of their choosing, they continue in large numbers to select HBCUs. With high ACT and SAT scores and with high school grade point averages of more than 3.5, black outstanding students are being sought after by many of the prestigious colleges in the nation. The excellent students enrolling in HBCUs have had the option of attending Ivy League colleges and other top universities but they choose continually to attend HBCUs. Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, an HBCU, has over the years been competing favorably with Yale and Harvard universities for more National Achievement Scholars--the most academically talented black students graduating from high school. Figure L shows that for three consecutive years 1995-1997 HBCUs attracted more of these scholars than Harvard or Yale--Florida A&M University in 1995 with 59 National Achievement Scholars and again in 1997 with 73 such scholars and Howard University in 1996 with 70 scholars. Figure II shows that between 1994 and 1998 both Howard and FAMU ranked among the top five universities in the nation attracting National Achievement Scholars. FAMU ranked 6th, 5th and 3rd , 5th and 3rd again and Howard was ranked 5th, 3rd, 5th,3rd, and 4th, in the same period. (See Figure 2)

The enrollment of these students in HBCUs indicate that their parents, many of whom were probably educated at one of these institutions, do trust these colleges and universities with the education of their children and expect them to be well educated.

What, therefore, are the programs that are implemented to help prepare these students to function as contributing members of society? This paper discusses the Honors Programs at HBCUs, the challenges for students entering these programs and the important contribution that the National African American Association Honors Programs is making in assisting to prepare these Honor students for life beyond the bachelor's degree.

The Honors Programs

Price (1998) has stated that the development of any community requires intellectual capital and HBCUs must make available a supply of black intellectuals with doctorates in the intellectual disciplines. To provide doctorates is one of the objectives of Honors Programs at these schools. The programs were created to provide students with a challenging college experience that enhances their university experience. Even though some universities have Honors Colleges--Grambling University, Hampton University, Jackson State University, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Voorhees College are examples--the basic programs are similar. However, the Honors Colleges receive a little more prominence because they have as their administrative head a dean instead of a director. The strengths of these programs lie in the fact that they are committed to nurturing the potential to achieve of the academically-talented students who come to the universities. Self-development, leadership skills, and personal worth are enhanced and the honor students have opportunities to conduct research and exchange ideas in a supportive academic environment.

One of the characteristics of the Honors Programs at these HBCUs is that they offer a sequence of courses that is specifically designed to encourage highly motivated students to think independently and to be creative. The Honors Colloquium and Honors Seminars are examples of these courses. In most of the institutions, programs meet the needs of students in all academic majors whether science, journalism, business, art or theatre. Their program of studies also assists them in becoming more responsive to community and societal needs through community service.


In the majority of the Honors Programs at HBCUs, students are admitted at the beginning of the their first semester, using mainly their SAT, ACT scores and their high school GPA (see Table III). Hampton University and LeMoyne Owen College are among the HBCUs that admit students after completing the first semester or 15 hours of course work. Peterson's Honors Program (1999) and interviews indicate that students are admitted on four criteria--GPAs, standardized test, scores on the SAT or ACT, and on essay. The following are criteria used for admission in the Honors Programs at HBCUs.

High school grade point average (GPA)--3.0 to 3.5

SAT scores--1100 or higher

ACT scores--20 or higher

An essay

In addition, a committee may meet to decide whether the applicant should be admitted based on the above criteria, an interview and letters of recommendation. Table I shows the requirements of HBCUs and the number of students in the Programs. Southern (800) Jackson State (500), Florida A&M (350), Grambling State (260), and Morehouse College (200) have the largest number of students in the program.

Courses and Faculty

The advantages to the students entering the program are varied. The classes, courses, and faculty lend themselves to success in the various programs. The classes are small and thus are suitable for in-depth discussion and opportunities to delve deeper into topics of interest Most programs have 17-24 hours of honors courses. These are taken during the freshmen and sophomore years. Students receive honors credits in one of three ways. They may take an honors course (small classes limited to honors students), they may take an honors seminar, or they may contract with a professor to receive honors credit. To remain in the program students need to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA.

During their junior and senior years the honor students work on their Honors-in-the-Major project or senior thesis. This second phase of the Honors Program has been adopted by almost all of universities that have an honors program. Alcorn, Grambling and Hampton are among those universities that have an honors thesis or Honors-in-the-Major project. Students, with the help of an advisor, select a topic of interest and work with the professor to complete the thesis before graduation. Courses in research assist them in their writing. The quality of this thesis is such that it also helps to prepare them for graduate work. The faculty is dedicated and they are among the highest skilled. They are researchers and excellent scholars who continually challenge the students. Faculty and scholars from other universities and the community are invited as speakers to the Honors Programs.

Research and Scholarships

Students in the programs have excellent opportunities to participate in research other than their senior thesis. The ability to have close contacts with the professors so that they can pursue their interest lends itself to opportunities for research whether at their home university or through summer internships at other universities.

Many of the students who enter the Honors Program possess such high academic record that they qualify to obtain scholarships. At Florida A&M University many of the Honor students receive Presidential scholarships. These are sponsored by companies such as Ely Lily, IBM, and Nations Bank and are awarded by the president of the university. These include the Life-Gets-Better and the Distinguished Scholars Award. The recipients of these awards have a full scholarship for their entire four years of undergraduate study. In addition, some HBCUs Honors Programs are able, with limited funds, to award partial scholarships to deserving students. The criteria for scholarships in many of the Honors Programs at HBCUs are based on ability and need.

Information on scholarships and fellowships are sent to the Honors Office and students who frequent there have opportunities to receive assistance and guidance in applying for these fellowships. The Truman scholar from Florida A&M University and the Rhodes Scholar from Morehouse were both members of their university's Honors Programs. The Emerging Leaders Workshop, which shares valuable information on scholarships and fellowships and graduate assistantships for minority students, is held in Virginia each summer and is sponsored jointly by the Truman Scholarship Office, Dupont and Mellon Foundation. Black students who attend this workshop receive valuable information on preparing early for graduate school, preparation of a resume, and how to apply for prestigious scholarships such as the Truman, the Rhodes, the Marshall, and Mellon scholarships.

Travel and Study Abroad

In a survey of 30 incoming freshmen honor students at FAMU, only two of them had the opportunity to travel abroad either on holiday with their parents or with other students. It seems, therefore, that students in the Honors Program at FAMU and perhaps at other HBCUs, have had little opportunities to travel abroad. The Honors Programs provide them with such opportunities. Some Honors Programs such as the one at FAMU have a travel abroad component in which students spend the Spring break in a foreign country. During their one week stay in another country FAMU students learn the language and the culture, while comparing the educational system with that in their own country. They also observe American businesses that have branches in the country visited. FAMU also has a Study Abroad Program in the Dominican Republic and the Honor students at the university have benefited from it. Students in many of the Honors Program travel to countries in Africa to spend a semester, especially the summer semester, studying and learning of the culture of their ancestors. This is especially attractive to the students because they can compare their language and customs with those of the African countries, information which they can share with other honor students upon their return to their individual HBCU.

With the ease of communication and the interdependence of countries, knowledge of a language other than English and the familiarity with the culture of another country are of extreme importance. It is, therefore, imperative for Honors directors of HBCUs to encourage and to assist their students in their preparation to function adequately in the global marketplace by emphasizing language acquisition and travel abroad.


There are two major conferences that Honor students at HBCUs can and do attend. The National Collegiate Honors conference (NCHC), and the National African American Association Honors Program Conference (NAAAHP) are widely attended. These conferences serve three main purposes. Students attending are able to interact with other outstanding students, sharing ideas and information; they can present papers; and they can, at the same time, listen to outstanding presentations by their peers and professors. These students can also receive information on scholarships and graduate school.

The NCHC is the umbrella for all Honors Programs both in two year and four year colleges. They have an updated list of all programs in the country whose institutions are members of the organization. The objective of the NCHC is to assist Honors Programs to improve by providing information to the schools, the directors, the faculty and the students. At the conferences held once annually, there are more than 1200 honor students in attendance. Presentation of papers mainly by students and also by a few professors and information and discussions by keynote speakers are some of the highlights of the conference.

The National Association of African-American Honors Programs Conference, founded in 1991, is an organization whose objective is to promote and to advance honors programs at HBCUs. The directors who met to establish the organization had, among its goals, the following:

* To develop, enhance, and support honors programs in all HBCUs.

* To stimulate and encourage community service and leadership.

* To sponsor research related to honors education.

* To advocate the funding of honors programs by federal and state agencies as well as private organizations.

* To facilitate the enrollment of Africa-American students in graduate and professional schools.

* To develop an undergraduate educational environment that promotes scholarship, knowledge, and an appreciation of African-American culture as a mirror for understanding other great world cultures.

Through the efforts of the NAAAHP honor students have been able to attend this conference and to present papers. Each year the number of students attending has increased. At the last conference held in Alabama, there were more than 250 participants in attendance. Highlights of the conference included presentations from all disciplines, Model United Nations and a debate competition.


Honors education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities plays an important role in preparing future leaders of this country. There is a severe shortage of black Ph.Ds in America. According to the American Council on Education in a 1993 study (Prestage 1994) African Americans received fewer doctorates in 1992 than in 1991. The Honors Programs at HBCUs must play an important role in reversing this trend since many of the academically talented and high achieving students come through their programs. The graduate of these Honors Programs must be future leaders who have the ability to function in a multicultural society whether in the United States or in another country. They must have knowledge of more than one language and the understanding of other cultures. In addition, they must participate in community service with a desire to making the world a better place for all. The commitment of the Honors Programs at HBCUs will help to achieve these objectives.
Table I

Honors Programs at HBCUs

College/University                      Public/               Year

Alcom State University                  Public                1871
Benedict College                        Private               1869
Florida A & M University                Public                1887
Grambling State University              Public                1901
Hampton                                 Private               1868
Hinds Community College                 Public                1917
Jackson State University                Public                1877
Kentucky State University               Public                1886
LeMoyne Owen College                    Private               1862
Mississippi Valley State University     Public                1946
Morehouse College                       Private               1867
Norfolk State University                Public                1935
Prairie View A&M                        Public                1878
Southern University and A&M Col.        Public                1880
Spelman College                         Private               1881
Saint Philips                           Private               1889
University of Arkansas at Pine          Public                1873
Voorhees College                        Private               1897

College/University                          Admission         # of
                                           Requirements       Students

Alcom State University                  24ACT/Placement       175
Benedict College                        ACT/SAT               170
Florida A & M University                27ACT/1100SAT         350
Grambling State University              21ACT/3.5GPA          260
Hampton                                 After 1st semester    150
Hinds Community College                 25ACT/3.25GPA         150
Jackson State University                ACT/SAT               500
Kentucky State University               21ACT/                65
LeMoyne Owen College                    After 1st semester    65
Mississippi Valley State University     20ACT/3.2GPA          85
Morehouse College                       27ACT/1160SAT         200
Norfolk State University                3.0GPA                180
Prairie View A&M                        27ACT/1200SAT         80
Southern University and A&M Col.        23ACT/1060SAT         800
Spelman College                         SAT/GPA               260
Saint Philips                           3.3GPA                230
University of Arkansas at Pine          21ACT                 130
Voorhees College                        28ACT/1200SAT         4

Peterson's Honors Program, 1999


National Collegiate Honors Council, (1999). Honors Programs: Official Guide to the National Collegiate Honors Council, 2nd Edition, Peterson's Thomson Learning.

Prestage, J. (1994). The National Association of African American Honors Programs (NAAAHP) and the Challenge of Honors Education in Historically Black Colleges and Universities. National Honors Report, 15(1) 44.

Price, G. (1998). Black Colleges and Universities: The Road to Philistia, The Negro Review, 59(12), 9-21.

IVY A. MITCHELL, PH.D Associate Professor of Spanish & Director of Honors Program Florida A&M University, Tallahassee, Florida 32307
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Author:Mitchell, Ivy A.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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