AI at HBCUs: The next digital divide or a great reset?

"Some of us may be ready and some of us may not," says Manicia Finch, vice president of the Division of Enrollment Management at South Carolina State University. "It really depends on how deep [you're willing] to dive and who you're taking in the water."

As awesome the potential of AI, experts warn about its threat of widening the digital divide for institutions, families and students yet to fully obtain stable high-speed internet. As a result, minority serving institutions, like HBCUs, are on the knife’s edge between deeper student outcome disparities and a renaissance in innovation and career preparation.

While one report last year by Mckinsey & Company, a consulting agency, estimated that generative AI can widen the racial economic gap in the U.S. by a staggering $43 billion, Alton Mosely, the cybersecurity tech coordinator for Benedict College (S.C.), believes it can propel the Black community.

“AI could truly revolutionize the disparity between whites and Blacks,” he said, according to Forbes. “However, the gen AI readiness of Black Americans is extremely low.”

Several HBCUs are pledging to become leaders in AI adoption to help counterbalance their limited resources due to historically low levels of funding. What’s more, the future of work—and the employability of its college graduates—simply demands it.

“As an HBCU, we’re often last to the party. We do not intend for that to happen,” says Alexander Conyers, president of South Carolina State University (SCSU). “We must be able to provide those things to them now or try to play catch-up 10 years later.”

AI helps playbook an enrollment comeback at SCSU

This past fall, SCSU welcomed 1,200 students, its largest class of the past five years and a 32% enrollment climb from the year prior. Conyers credits the winning strategy to AI improving their data storage and its ability to help decipher actionable insight. For Manicia Finch, vice president for the division of enrollment management, AI helped build out a best-in-class customer support system that’s handled nearly 12,000 inquiries from current and incoming students since July 2023.

“We’ve been doing more with less for a very long time, so we stepped into a beautiful situation to help us really push the strategic platform,” she says.

Finch credits their collaboration with Ed Advancement, a nonprofit dedicated to helping institutions achieve student equity, on helping develop and implement the chatbot. On the other hand, elite resources brimming with funding and expertise, such as the University of Michigan and Yale, are capable of creating their own.

More from UB: While all students fell prey to remote learning loss, this group was hit the hardest

The risk of setbacks

President Conyers estimates the land-grant university dedicated up to 80% of its strategic operations to solving its enrollment issues. The road to implementing AI into the academic side has yet to begin.

“We certainly don’t think we had all the answers then, and we certainly don’t have the answers now, but we do recognize that we need help,” he says. “For where we need to go next, we’re going to look to bring in outside expertise to teach, coach and mentor our faculty.”

Wide-eyed and ready to work, SCSU begun collaborating with MIT and Harvard. Other HBCUs, like Norfolk State University, collaborated with chatbot company Mainstay and the Yale School for Emotional Intelligence to develop a language model that better reflects the HBCU experience.

However, finances are still a constant struggle. Grambling State University in Louisiana recently turned to Hiration to help its constrained staff provide student resume support; GSU has a single career advisor for every 5,300 students, according to a report from Ed Advancement. While the résumé tool has an extension capable of leveraging AI technology, it’s prohibitively expensive.

“To gain this technology and the prerequisite expertise [to use it] is pretty costly,” says President Conyers. “Many institutions that aren’t educating themselves on AI are simply prioritizing the limited resources that they have.”

In addition to the financial constraints, approximately 82% of HBCUs are located in regions that lack fast and reliable internet access, The Minority Reporter reports. These “broadband deserts” ever-present at institutions who primarily educate underserved students threaten to impede progress on AI.

“I attended a conference recently with about 25 HBCU presidents and the main topic was ensuring that we aren’t left behind,” says Conyers.

A recent spate of grants at the federal and state level are preparing to expand broadband access in hard-to-reach areas across South Carolina, helping SCSU bridge the first digital divide.

“We’re getting there,” says Conyers. “We’re trying to get there as fast as we can before AI fully ticks off.”

Fighting on, pushing forward

Institutions with limited resources don’t always have the luxury of implementing short- and long-term strategies simultaneously, says Conyers. “You got to make tough decisions. Do I put this funding towards what I need today, or do I put this funding towards what’s happening in the future?”

But with 28 years serving in the U.S. Army, Col. Conyers understands how deeply AI is affecting the military, which has led him to fathom how much it will impact all other industries and the acumen employers will expect out of future candidates. Furthermore, he doesn’t want faculty falling behind the learning curve.

“We need to ensure that faculty understand AI so we can keep up with our advanced students while also helping those who don’t have the initial understanding of it,” he says.

Institutions are free to navigate this uncertain future how they please. However, SCSU is ready to trek the unbeaten path.

“Some of us may be ready and some of us may not,” says Finch. “It really depends on how deep [you’re willing] to dive and who you’re taking in the water.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

Most Popular