If HBCUs Want to Better Serve Students With Disabilities, They Must Improve Web Accessibility

HBCUs do incredible equity work to help close the racial wealth gap. To better serve students with disabilities, HBCUs must improve web accessibility.

portrait of Z. W. Taylor, Ph.D.
by Z. W. Taylor, Ph.D.

Updated November 7, 2022

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If HBCUs Want to Better Serve Students With Disabilities, They Must Improve Web Accessibility
Image Credit: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Confronting Digital Challenges in Higher Education

As someone who has worked as a college access professional, I can attest to the difficulties that students with disabilities face in trying to access information on college and university websites. I used to sit with students, side by side, to try to help them navigate college applications and financial aid processes.

When students were with me, I was able to guide them through these processes relatively easily. However, if they needed to complete these processes on their own, many students would report to me that they were unable to read parts of the website. These included elements like the font being too small, videos not being closed caption, and pictures without descriptions.

Web accessibility is complicated, and there is much more to college access than navigating a college website. However, in my experiences, students with disabilities have faced and continue to face considerable digital challenges that many of their peers simply do not.

Now, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) face a similar challenge.

HBCUs Are Closing the Equity Gap, But Still Have Far to Go

As of 2022, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes over 100 historically Black colleges and universities. During their history, HBCUs have been undersupported by both state and federal education agencies. Yet, HBCUs still make a disproportionately positive impact on Black college graduates and society.

As a former communications consultant for HBCUs, I regularly spoke with HBCU leadership as they shared two contradictory realities. One, their institution was woefully undersupported and underfunded. Two, their HBCU fundamentally changes the lives of their students.

Compared to predominantly white institutions, HBCUs, on average, charge almost 30% less in tuition, while also educating much larger percentages of low-income students and first-generation college students.

A Gallup report found that Black HBCU graduates reported being more financially, purposefully, and socially well off than Black college graduates of non-HBCUs. Reports suggest that despite making up only 3% of all colleges and universities in the United States, HBCUs enroll nearly 10% of all Black college students and produce around 20% of all Black graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Here, we know that HBCUs do an incredible amount of equity work to help close the racial wealth gap and ensure that Black professionals are prepared to enter the workforce and enjoy successful careers. I have witnessed this firsthand. Ultimately, the history and impact of HBCUs cannot be praised enough.

Yet, rapid advances in educational and communication technology have left many HBCUs behind.

Coupling advances in technology with the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected Black communities, perhaps the most vulnerable group of Black students may never have access to HBCUs — Black students with disabilities.

Exposing Web Accessibility Issues at HBCUs

Historically, colleges and universities have not kept pace with advancements in technology.

Many educational technologies include assistive technology software or other accessibility features so students with a wide range of disabilities can access educational information at the same level as their peers.

However, many students have sued colleges and universities, claiming the institutions failed to provide accessible materials in order for them to access higher education. I worked with many students with disabilities who would quit at the application stage because the website wasn't built for them.

Many websites still aren't.

Recently, HBCU websites came under the microscope for their web accessibility, or, the degree to which a person with a disability can navigate a website at the same level as a peer without a disability. That study suggested that HBCU websites were highly inaccessible. This meant that a student with a disability would likely be unable to apply for admission or financial aid through the average HBCU website.

Although HBCUs have been a beacon of access to college for Black students for generations, this access has not carried over into the digital space.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19.4% of U.S. undergraduates during the 2015-2016 academic year reported having a disability. The percentage of students with a disability is likely higher since many may choose not to disclose their disabilities.

Higher education institutions, including HBCUs, must make efforts to accommodate students with disabilities and help make their environments more accepting and accessible.

Learn more about how accessibility removes barriers for success at college and work.

How HBCUs Can Improve for Students With Disabilities

From here, HBCUs need to seriously advocate for their current and future students with disabilities in three main areas.

HBCUs must strengthen their relationships with community-based organizations that support people with disabilities.

Many people with disabilities require assistance to access college through third parties and college access organizations.

To close the enrollment gap between students with and without disabilities, HBCUs must strengthen their relationships with community-based organizations to explore how Black students with disabilities can be better supported to increase access to college information.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials has created a directory of community-based organizations serving people with disabilities. HBCUs should connect with these organizations to strengthen the college access pipeline for this population.

HBCUs should advocate for stronger state and federal funding to increase technological capacity and advance HBCU websites into the 21st century.

Today, countless colleges and universities invest millions into their websites to compete with peers and share college information. Although the unfair treatment of HCBUs by governmental agencies has been well documented, HBCUs must work to invest in their technology infrastructures.

This work should begin with ensuring that HBCU websites are as accessible as possible for students with disabilities.

HBCUs must make online learning and accessibility a priority.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a higher education trend toward online learning. A few decades ago, it was rare for a college student to earn an online degree. Today, nearly every college and university in the United States offers at least one bachelor's degree that is fully online.

HBCUs must embrace the online education space, especially knowing that many students with disabilities may be unable to physically navigate a campus or have no desire to do so. From here, HBCU leaders must envision college access as access to education from anywhere — on a campus or from someone's living room.

By bolstering online program offerings and creating web-accessible learning materials, HBCUs will drive greater enrollment and better support students with disabilities.

Ultimately, there are Black students with disabilities around the world whose dream it is to attend an HBCU. After all, HBCUs are legendary. Now, it is up to HBCUs to fulfill that promise and open the digital doors of access to students with disabilities.

After all, serving the underserved is what HBCUs do.

Meet the Author:

Portrait of Z.W. Taylor, Ph.D.

Z.W. Taylor, Ph.D.

Dr. Z.W. Taylor is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Dr. Taylor has worked in education for 13 years as a pre-college counselor, assistant director of admissions, and admissions analyst, specifically aiming to serve low-income students and students of color.