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The Review of Higher Education 25.3 (2002) 331-347

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Involvement, Interaction, and Satisfaction:
The Human Environment at HBCUs

Charles L. Outcalt and Thomas E. Skewes-Cox


Recent court decisions and legislative actions have called into question the continued existence of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as institutions with the primary mission of serving the nation's African American community (United States v. Fordice, 1992). While these challenges to the unique character of HBCUs have taken many forms, a primary area of contention has been the racial/ethnic composition of HBCUs' student bodies. These schools are coming under increasing pressure to reconfigure their enrollment policies to include more non-African Americans (Mixon et al., 1995; St. John, 1998; St. John & Hossler, 1998). When [End Page 331] one considers the mounting challenges to educational equity for African Americans and other students of color posed by changes in admissions policies in an ever-growing portion of the United States, including California, Washington, Florida, and those states affected by the Hopwood v. Texas (1996) decision, it seems likely that HBCUs will become ever more important sources of educational opportunity for African-American students. Thus, HBCUs will likely become more important at the very time they face increasing threats to their very existence and missions. A better understanding of the means by which these institutions achieve success with their student population becomes vital.

The higher education literature contains numerous studies attesting to the beneficial academic and professional effects of attending HBCUs for African Americans (Allen, 1992; Astin, 1975; Astin, Tsui, & Avalos, 1996; Bonous-Hammarth & Boatsman, 1996; Davis, 1991; Fleming, 1984; Roebuck & Murty, 1993). However, although research has demonstrated that, in general, student involvement is related strongly to student success, the literature does not contain many studies examining the relationship between student involvement and satisfaction for African American students at HBCUs. Similarly, educational research has not sufficiently addressed the complex relationship between institutional support for African Americans and these students' involvement and satisfaction. With this study, we seek to expand the understanding of the relationships between the HBCU institutional climate, African American student involvement, and their satisfaction with the college experience. Our conclusion discusses the implications of our findings within the current, fragile political environment for HBCUs.

Implications of the Fordice Case

The most significant recent legal case involving the future of HBCUs is United States v. Fordice (1992). The Supreme Court declared that Mississippi had not done enough to end segregation and ruled that several specific aspects of higher education must be scrutinized for vestiges of segregation, including admissions standards, educational program duplication, institutional mission assignments, and the continued operation of all eight Mississippi state universities (Mixon et al., 1995). Of particular concern to the Court was the "racial identifiability" of Mississippi's institutions of higher education. The Court held that states would not be in compliance with the Court's decision until they "eradicate policies and practices traceable to the prior de jure system that continue to foster segregation" (United States v. Fordice, 1992, p. 2892).

To date, no HBCUs have been closed as a result of the Fordice decision. However, a second challenge to HBCUs--a shift in their historical character [End Page 332] and mission--stems from the portion of the Fordice decision requiring them to alter their admissions policies and mission statements to end racial and ethnic "segregation." As St. John (1998) notes, Fordice has placed a new emphasis on student choice at the expense of the pre-Fordice goals of developing HBCUs while removing traces of segregation.

Theories of Involvement and Human Ecology

Alexander Astin's (1985) theory of student involvement provides the beginnings of a conceptual framework within which to understand the findings about involvement and interaction reported in the literature. According to Astin, student involvement leads to student success as students become engaged with and invest energy in their environment. Despite individual differences in the effects of involvement, Astin found consistently positive relationships between learning and academic involvement, between academic involvement and academic performance, and between peer...


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