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Let’s Talk HBCUs: Accessing this Untapped Talent Market & Debunking the Myths

February 6, 2023
By Candyce Burke

“Really? You want to go to Morgan State?”

“Morgan is like the 13th grade!”

“There is no diversity. Why would you want to be in an environment with only Black people? The real world isn’t like that!”

“You will never get a job if you go to Morgan. Recruiters aren’t looking there for talent.”

When I chose to enroll at Morgan State University – a public, historically black research university (HBCU) in Baltimore, MD – I was met with many detractors. Looking back on it, I am not sure what bothered me more at the time, the comments themselves or the people who made them.

After graduating in 2020, I noticed that many of my peers who graduated from HBCUs encountered similar misperceptions during their job searches, and some began to lose hope. I realized that changing mindsets towards HBCUs starts with tackling some of the most common myths.

Candyce Burke (above), assistant account executive at FleishmanHillard and Morgan State 2020 graduate.

Myth #1: HBCUs don’t produce top talent.

HBCUs are a market of untapped talent and potential. Recruiting from HBCUs can help companies diversify their workplace, especially in fields like public relations, where over 70% of employees are white. HBCUs are responsible for 22% of current bachelor’s degrees grated to African Americans. While HBCU students represent some of the most talented prospects in the job market, recruitment efforts from companies at these institutions are still inadequate. According to a recent LinkedIn article, the industries that outperform others in recruiting HBCU grads include energy and mining, software and IT services, hardware and networking, finance and manufacturing. The public relations industry should take note of how these industries are attracting and retaining HBCU talent, and work to produce similar results.

Myth #2: There’s no diversity at HBCUs.

HBCUs are incredibly diverse. These institutions were established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to primarily serve the Black community and correct for systemic exclusion of Black people from higher education. However, during my time at Morgan State, I met students from Latin America, Africa, Europe, various Caribbean islands and states across the U.S. This opened my eyes to the abundance of diversity within the Black community, and to the beauty in all the cultures and experiences that connect us yet make us so unique.  Diversity comes in many forms, and HBCUs allow Black students to stand tall and take pride in their intersectionality. No matter a student’s gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background or nationality, there’s a place for everyone to feel safe. Personally, this is what made me feel most comfortable at Morgan State – the freedom to be myself.

So, what can companies and their recruiters do to reach diverse talent at HBCUs?

Here are some of my thoughts:

Recruit outside of the box: There are currently 101 HBCUs in the nation. However, many recruiters gravitate to the same ones to find new talent. Connecting and partnering with schools around the country (outside of the typical suspects) can help more students get experience and opportunities, as well as face-to-face interaction with recruiters.

Work on internal DE&I efforts: As a diverse candidate, I would not apply anywhere I didn’t feel represented. On top of having a DE&I plan and initiatives in place to make all their employees feel included, companies should also have diverse recruiters. This would also make applicants feel comfortable asking questions, giving recruiters the chance to explain why the company is a good place for them to start their careers.

Make hiring more accessible and less exclusive: A lot of the best opportunities require an “in” or a connection. Many companies recruit new hires from within their employees’ networks, which can lead to a lack of diversity in their workplace. Instead, companies should reach out to, for example, student-led organizations at HBCUs to recruit talent. Building relationships with HBCU student groups and others within this community garners trust and leads to inclusive and accessible hiring practices.

I am not the only one who wants to see more opportunities for students graduating from HBCUs. And unfortunately, I am not the only one who has heard negative comments about HBCUs based on false stereotypes and misinformation. It is my goal to encourage companies and their recruiters to reach out and explore the fresh faces and rich perspectives that HBCU students offer. This is how I give back to Morgan State and the other 100 HBCUs across the nation.