Why PR Agencies Need to Recruit and Retain Students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities

February 24, 2021

By Omar Howard, Graduate Public Relations Intern

Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman, first Black, and first Asian-American to hold the position in the history of America. Rosalind Brewer, newly appointed Chief Executive Officer of Walgreens. Elizabeth Campbell, Senior Director of Marketing at McDonalds.  

What do all three of these women have in common?

Each graduated from a Historically Black College or University (HBCU).

For more than 150 years, HBCUs have been the breeding grounds for America’s greatest Black leaders in entertainment, medicine, business, government affairs— the list goes on. The term HBCU was first coined under the Higher Education Act of 1965, which defined HBCUs as any “historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] …”. However, the legacy of HBCUs date back to the late 1840s when racial discrimination prevented Black people from attending all-white colleges. The first HBCU, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, was established in 1837. From 1861 to 1900, during the height of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws, more than 80 HBCUs were established across the United States to educate Black students who were previously denied access to education. Today, over 100 HBCUs exist in the United States and support the continued education of Black people.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is not only necessary to reflect on the legacy of HBCUs in American history, but it is crucial to recognize the continued talent produced by these institutions. Though HBCUs make up only 3% of America’s colleges and universities, they produce almost 20% of all Black college graduates with a bachelor’s degree. Yet, companies are not recruiting HBCU students at the same rate as students who attend predominantly white institutions, or PWIs. Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics has no formal data on companies who hire or do not hire HBCU graduates, anecdotal reports suggest that HBCUs are untapped pools of talent. Moreover, diversity data reveal that PR agencies’ talent acquisition teams are not actively recruiting from these institutions in a manner consistent with PWIs.

Despite corporate attempts to overlook and discredit the academic integrity of HBCUs, one poll revealed that HBCU graduates have highest rate of financial, career, and emotional well-being of college graduates (Gallup, 2016). Yet, lack of funding and name recognition are two main reasons why HBCU graduates are often excluded from job considerations, according to Barbara L. Adams, business school dean and accounting professor at South Carolina State University.

With the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the United States, cultural awareness is key for strategic communications. Diversity is no longer optional—it is integral as communicators to strengthen cultural competency and improve cross-cultural communications.

When thinking of ways to increase diversity, PR agencies must not forget HBCUs. If PR agencies can develop authentic ways to engage with future Black communicators, then I am hopeful for the future of our industry. Below I have a compiled five ways PR agencies can build better relationships with HBCUs:

  1. Improve college recruitment to strategically target top-performing HBCUs
    • When reviewing college recruitment strategies, dedicate resources to identifying the top talent across the 100+ HBCUs that exist in America. And don’t stop at the major universities but discover top-performing HBCUs that may not be as well-known.
  2. Educate HBCU faculty and career development staff about hiring resources and timelines
    • Put simply, some HBCUs may not have access to industry insights due to funding or lack of professional contacts. By sharing new industry insights with faculty or student groups at HBCUs, PR firms can better prepare Black students for the job market and competitive internships.
  3. Provide paid internships, affordable housing or remote opportunities
    • Nobody should work for free, even if it’s for college credit or “experience.” Pay your interns. In addition, if you can, identify affordable housing because the reality is living in a major city on an intern salary is difficult for many college students, especially low-income students. Financial limitations should not stop opportunities for career development. If possible, provide remote opportunities.
  4. Create a talent pipeline program for Black students through seminars or workshops
    • Companies like Spotify, Boeing and IBM have launched programs to promote relationship building between students from HBCUs and industry professionals. Consider ways which your company can create a similar program to consistently engage with Black talent, even if its virtual!
  5. Cultivate meaningful relationships with Black students to retain talent
    • Recruiting Black talent is great, but retention is the goal. Make sure you are being intentional about relationship building so that Black students not only want to work for your company but want to stay.

As we settle into the new year, let us not forget that reflection and action are key for continued growth. After a year of racial reckoning, it is important to remember that Black voices matter and diverse perspectives are necessary to advance strategic, thoughtful and well-rounded communications. Black people are not a monolith and HBCUs reveal the richness of Black minds. So, if you are a CEO, CCO or are serious about supporting Black talent, please considering signing these pledges to show your commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

And don’t let your advocacy stop with a virtual signature or reading this blog post. Actually hire students from HBCUs. Invest in Black students and future PR leaders.