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Enrollment at Some HBCUs Increases in the Wake of Black Lives Matter Protests

Since campuses closed in spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education leaders have been wringing their hands over fall enrollment numbers. But amid the pandemic, Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest historically Black university, is actually growing.

The institution saw a 46% increase in first-year students who put down deposits, one of the highest fall enrollments in the last five to seven years, according to Jeff Jones, Cheyney University’s executive director of enrollment management. 

“We’re going in such a positive direction that I think the public is looking at us a lot more closely than it did in the past,” he says. 

Dr. Janelle WilliamsDr. Janelle Williams

On the whole, HBCUs, like the rest of the higher education sector, are experiencing drops in enrollment as the coronavirus continues to create uncertainty. But in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests this summer, some HBCUs are attracting higher numbers of students. Like Cheyney, HBCUs like Winston-Salem State University and Claflin University also saw enrollment trend upward, The Washington Post reported. 

This uptick in prospective HBCU students follows a pattern, says Dr. Janelle Williams, associate dean of graduate studies and extended learning at Widener University. She co-authored a report last year titled, “A Response to Racism: How HBCU Enrollment Grew in the Face of Hatred.” The study analyzed interviews with 80 students at four HBCUs where applications and enrollments increased after President Donald J. Trump’s election. 

“Social and political events do impact the choices of students, real and realized,” she says. She called the protests over George Floyd — a Black man killed in police custody in Minnesota — the “second wave” of the Black Lives Matter movement. The first wave, when activists founded Black Lives Matter in 2013 — coupled with anti-racist protests at the University of Missouri in 2015 — also led to a spike in HBCU enrollment, she noted.

Safe space

The study found that Black students turned to HBCUs at these times primarily for a “notion of safety,” says co-author Dr. Robert Palmer, chair and associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University. For example, after the 2016 election, Black students reported uncomfortable interactions with friends at their primarily White high schools related to Trump’s rhetoric around race. 

Now, in the aftermath of protests against police brutality, again, “Folks are more likely to look for a safer place,” Palmer says. “And they can find that safer place, that safer community in a context of HBCUs, where they don’t have to worry

Dr. Robert PalmerDr. Robert Palmer

about racial microaggressions, worry about being profiled because of their race, worry about being treated differently because of their race. They can just be their authentic self.”

When students think “long-term” — beyond the pandemic — they really want to spend their four to six years in college somewhere they can avoid racist experiences, he added. 

In Cheyney University’s case, Jones credits the institution’s president, Aaron A. Walton, for the school’s enrollment uptick — it’s been rising for the past several years — but he also acknowledges the role of national protests, calling HBCUs a “safe haven” for minority students.

Ultimately, Black students are “going to go where they feel most comfortable,” Jones says. “When students are looking into institutions, they’re not only taking into consideration the type of academic experience they’re going to have. I also think they’re taking into consideration — and slightly more now than in the past — the types of social interactions and social relationships that they’ll have.”

And now, with the help of social media, students can gather a lot of information about what it’s like to be a Black student at different universities, Williams says. They can also see how universities responded to George Floyd’s killing and this nationwide call for change, Williams says. In addition to seeking somewhere “affirmative” and “familial,” they’re making a statement with “their money and with their feet and with their enrollment.”

Top sports prospects opting for HBCUs 

Williams pointed to a number of high-profile prospective college athletes who have been drumming up support online for HBCUs. Basketball player Makur Maker, for example, committed to Howard University in July, passing up other options including a scholarship at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

“I need to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow,” he tweeted. 

Norfolk State University hooked basketball player Nate Tabor, who rejected Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky to play for the HBCU. 

Sought-after basketball player Mikey Williams announced on Instagram in June that he’s considering “multiple HBCUs.”

“I AM RIDING FOR MY PEOPLE!” Williams posted. “I’M 10 TOES BEHIND THE BLACK COMMUNITY! Any way I can help or make a change in the black community, best believe I am going to do that.”

Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest HBCUCheyney University, the nation’s oldest HBCU

However, Jones pointed out that it’s not just Black students attracted to HBCUs right now, at least at Cheyney. He’s seen an increase in student enrollment at the university for White, Asian and Latinx students as well — “students of all flavors,” he says.

“I think diversity is something that all kids want,” he said. “It’s a different world that we live in now.”

For smaller HBCUs, these enrollment boosts could be a much-needed help as the COVID-19 pandemic puts a financial strain on underresourced institutions, Palmer says. On the whole, HBCUs have smaller endowments than other universities and rely more heavily on tuition, and, for some, a loss of a hundred students could have “significant financial ramifications.”

But while more tuition dollars could bolster cash-strapped HBCUs, Williams also foresees challenges for the HBCUs with enrollment increases. They need the resources to accommodate more students at a time when higher education is “hemorrhaging” and students need extra supports. 

If campuses return to in-person classes, “will HBCUs be prepared to provide PPE and more care for an increased number of students?” she asks. “While finances may see an increase, I feel like expenses will also be increased ….”

Still, she’s “really excited” to see increased interest in HBCUs, and she hopes HBCUs will serve as a model for predominantly White institutions at a time when higher education is reckoning with racism. 

She wants to see university leaders “look to see what HBCUs are doing — and not in a performative way,” seeking guidance from HBCU administrators and pursuing partnerships with these institutions. 

To follow in the footsteps of HBCUs, leaders of predominantly White institutions need to go beyond putting out anti-racist statements, Palmer adds, and follow them up with policies to diversify their student body and faculty, implicit bias training and regular campus climate surveys to inform future action, even when that involves airing “dirty laundry” and “a level of being vulnerable.” 

And amid protests, they should “use this as an opportunity to really facilitate learning,” he says. “Maybe there are folks on campus who don’t understand what Black Lives Matter is about or maybe they don’t really understand why students are protesting. Use this opportunity on campus to have students dialogue and really have a heart-to-heart conversation.”

He hopes the rising enrollment numbers at some HBCUs — and the protests that lifted them — will show those who haven’t experienced racism “that racial injustice is real.” 

“This is a real thing that students have to contend with, not only on college campuses but in the wider society,” he said. “We should try to do everything that institutions can to really foster critical dialogue and make an environment inclusive for all students who may be different or marginalized. I think that’s really important.”    

This article originally appeared in the August 6, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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