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Choosing Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs)

There has been significant discussion recently regarding the uptick in HBCU enrollment. In recent years, enrollment increases across the HBCU landscape have been attributed to a variety of reasons. Some cite the political atmosphere as a reason, noting that HBCUs serve as a reprieve for students fleeing overt racism and racial microaggressions present in communities and schools. For instance, all-star athlete and little league world series famed pitcher Mo’ne Davis explained that she wanted to attend an HBCU to connect with other young Black women and have an experience outside of the all-White schools she has attended as an adolescent. Others note the renewed interest and popularity of the Black tradition and Black aesthetic among a new generation of Millennials and Centennials.

Dr. LaToya OwensDr. LaToya Owens

While there have been numerous articles from HBCU alum that highlight why they attended and in retrospect had a good experience at their institution, we rarely hear from current HBCU students, namely freshmen, who just made the decision to attend an HBCU. This outlook holds the potential to be very valuable to institutions, particularly enrollment management offices, as they strategize to appeal to a vastly different group of students than ever before. While HBCUs have historically used tradition, legacy, and word of mouth to attract students, new efforts may be required to attract a new group of students who is essentially “up for grabs” by higher education institutions. While alumni recruitment stories, including my own, are often skewed by the experience individuals had at the institution, talking to early career students can help us understand how they made decisions, how the institution measures up to their expectations, and what will keep them enrolled.

This blog documents interviews with three students currently attending private HBCUs to understand their journey to college and their current experience. I understand that this is not a representative sample. The aim here is to move beyond recruitment to a conversation on yield, retention, completion and student success, and to value the experience and perspective of young people on our campuses. In this effort, I talked to a diverse group of HBCU underclassmen about their experiences selecting an institution and what has happened since entering the campus.

The following was revealed as common themes in their experiences selecting institutions:

  • The consideration of a large pool of institutions (15 or more per student),
  • The importance of extra-curricular activities in connecting them to knowledge of HBCUs,
  • The lack of HBCU knowledge imparted by advisors or in traditional educational settings, and
  • Dissonance between how HBCU alum impart information and how these students receive college-choice information.

The students considered a multitude of factors in their college choice process and all entertained a variety of schools. They all noted that they applied to a varied number of institutions and visited every school they applied to as well. While students did not report receiving information about HBCUs from their school advisors, all three noted that adults involved in their extra-curricular programs offered them knowledge of HBCUs. Interestingly, the two students whose parents either attended or graduated from HBCUs felt their parents did not offer significant enough knowledge of the schools, as their experience only spoke to the institution they attended, and they desired information on the range of HBCUs. Students relayed the importance of becoming familiar with more institutions in the HBCU sector as they understood not all are created equal.

Amira Williams, a freshman at Clark Atlanta University (CAU) from Sacramento, California said that CAU was the only HBCU she applied to while in high school. While she never ruled out HBCUs, she applied to three PWIs and only one HBCU. In terms of making decisions regarding college, Amira noted that both of her parents have graduate degrees, so not attending college wasn’t really an option for her. Amira was president of her school’s Black Student Union in high school and felt that she learned more about HBCUs, outside of the fact that they were majority Black, through her involvement in the Union than from her parents, teachers or advisors. This was even though her father briefly attended Morehouse before transferring. She added, that while in her early high school years she was resistant to HBCU attendance, her continued experience at a high school with a small Black student body made her yearn for increased and continued connections with Black friends and the community. Thus, in terms of her college experience, she expected to learn more about the Black community and forge life-long friendships with like-minded young women. While she reports her expectations for friendships have been met and she is excited about her school involvement, one issue she noted was her lack of African-American or Black professors, as she views the classroom as an opportunity to learn beyond the textbook and believes her knowledge about the community and Black perspective will partly be facilitated by her classroom experience. She believes this is critical to fulfilling her college purpose of self-discovery.

Sierra Jennings, a first-year student at Bennett College from Charlotte, North Carolina, echoes the importance of extra-curricular programs in college decision processes, as she explained that an HBCU focused program, Campus Connections, was integral to her college decision process. The program, offered through a religious organization, offered Sierra the opportunity to learn about and visit a variety of HBCUs. She became interested in the program because both her parents and maternal grandmother are HBCU alum of North Carolina Central University and Bennett College. Though her parents advocated for their college, Sierra said the tour helped her gain an understanding of the culture of each campus. After seeing various campuses, Sierra chose to attend Bennett College over Hampton University because she saw herself as a Bennett Belle and she received a full scholarship offer. She also notes that she learned there was an HBCU for every kind of person and has thus become a big advocate for the institutions. She expects that her college experience will facilitate her development as a Black woman, as she believes the purpose of higher education is to learn more about oneself, the world and other people.

Like Amira and Sierra, Sharod Smalls, a first-generation college student and sophomore from the Bronx, New York attending Morehouse College, said that his high school pre-law program is where he learned about HBCUs beyond loose mentions of Howard University and Clark Atlanta University in social settings. His pre-law advisor counseled him to investigate Morehouse College. While he applied to 15 schools, when he began researching, he felt Howard and Morehouse stood out because of the successes of their alums and the connections the students and alums had to their respective institution. Additionally, he noticed that support and opportunities were different on campuses where students had more of a connection to faculty and staff. Ultimately, learning of his pastor’s Morehouse alumni status swayed his decision. Related to his expectations for college, since entering Morehouse he has had experiences ranging from internships to connections to pre-law programs that he feels he would not have had access to at a larger school or a predominately white institution, which is key as his purpose in attending school was to open doors to opportunities not available to his family or community.

For enrollment management offices, the thought processes highlighted in these interviews with Centennials is valuable. Consider these four takeaways:

First, the college search experiences shared by the students highlighted that culture was one of the most critical components of their decision as each student noted the need to visit each campus they considered to understand their “fit.” Second, cultural fit may also explain the uptick in enrollment at many institutions as potential students likely see themselves in the current students, as well as alumni and faculty and staff. Third, these student stories underscore an opportunity for HBCUs to forge partnerships with nontraditional educational organizations to ensure students are aware of the breadth of opportunities at the institutions, or even their existence.

Lastly, while HBCUs have long been dependent on the success of their alumni bases, the dearth in useful information imparted by alumni is important to understand. While students learned of the existence of these institutions, conversations with some alumni did not yield information they felt useful in their decision-making process. HBCUs have an opportunity to ensure that their alumni are aware of how the institution is developing yearly.

LaToya Russell Owens is the director of Learning and Evaluation for the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at the United Negro College Fund.

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