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HBCU Attendance Linked to Better Health Outcomes for African American Students

Written by on November 21, 2022

By Mahbuba Matovu

African American students who attend Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs) may experience better health outcomes later in life compared to their peers who attend predominantly white institutions, according to a new study. The research showed that Black adults who had enrolled in an HBCU had a 35% lower probability of developing metabolic syndrome by midlife compared to Black adults who enrolled in predominantly white schools.

Metabolic syndrome is a group of factors that increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. The five factors include elevated blood pressure, excess belly fat, low “good” cholesterol, and high levels of blood glucose and triglycerides. The study’s findings were more pronounced in African Americans who grew up in more segregated environments, indicating that HBCUs may offer health-protective benefits to those who need it most.

Cynthia Colen, the lead author of the study and associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, stated that although it has been known for a long time that more years of schooling are likely to result in better health for individuals, there has been very little research on the impact of different educational contexts on subsequent health outcomes.

Colen also highlighted that the research showed that HBCUs could be health-protective for years to come, not just while people were in school.

The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), which consists of periodic interviews with people who were middle- and high-school students in grades 7-12 in 1994-95. Colen and her team specifically used information collected during follow-up interviews conducted in 1996, 2001, and 2008.

In the final study sample, there were 727 Black respondents who had attended 319 institutions of higher learning. Out of these institutions, 273 were predominantly white while 46 were classified as HBCUs. The National Center for Education Statistics defines HBCUs as institutions that were established with the primary objective of educating Black Americans before 1964.

To assess the relationship between attending HBCUs and midlife metabolic syndrome, Colen and her colleagues utilized statistical models. The models factored in various characteristics that could potentially affect both adult health and HBCU enrollment, including age, gender, region of the country, as well as certain family, school, and neighborhood conditions experienced during childhood.

According to the analysis, 31% of respondents who went to predominantly white institutions developed metabolic syndrome by midlife, while only 23% of those who attended HBCUs had the condition. The study found that attending an HBCU was linked to a 35% decrease in the chances of having metabolic syndrome for African Americans who received a college education. The researchers pointed out that this health benefit is similar to the risk reduction that scientific studies recommend through lifestyle modifications such as a healthy diet or regular exercise.

While the reason behind former HBCU students’ reduced risk for metabolic syndrome compared to those who attended predominantly white schools remains unclear, Cynthia Colen has some plausible explanations. She suggests that at HBCUs, Black students frequently engage with African American faculty, staff, and peers who can act as mentors, and they are less likely to be consistently exposed to racial discrimination, which has been demonstrated to erode both mental and physical health over time.

Nene Lander, an HBCU graduate from Texas Southern University, who pursued his masters degree at a predominantly white institution said he felt a significant difference in his individual experiences at the two institutions. Lander agrees with the findings of the study. “There’s a sense of home,” he said. Being around people that look just like you with enthusiasm about learning is not just comforting, it is motivating. Also, you make lifelong friendships with like-minded people.”

Almost 30% of college-educated Black adults in the study sample developed metabolic syndrome by the time of their interviews in 2008 when they were still relatively young. This is the time period when people are in their 30s and 40s and we see the fastest growth in Black/white health disparities, largely driven by the emergence of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.

By the time of their interviews in 2008, almost 30% of the college-educated Black adults in the study sample developed metabolic syndrome. Many in their 30s and 40s.

According to Colen, a strength of this research is that it does not compare college-educated African Americans to whites. The study is notable because it examines the unequal distribution of health among African Americans and identifies HBCUs as a potential driver for upward mobility and improving health outcomes.