Battling for the Best
Black schools experience a renaissance in recruiting high-achieving students
By Ronald Roach
When Leslie Broadway was applying to colleges, he had enough confidence in his academic record and athletic accomplishments that he concentrated all his energies on securing an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy. But when a knee injury in January of his senior year forced Broadway to consider applying to other institutions, the burly high school wrestling star didn’t worry too much about having missed application deadlines at other competitive institutions.
Admissions officials at both Howard and Florida A&M universities had kept in touch with Broadway via letters and phone calls, promising him academic scholarships and other support if he applied to the well-known historically Black schools.
Broadway first attracted the attention of Howard and FAMU officials during the fall of 1999, when he was named one of 1,500 National Achievement semifinalists. The National Achievement program is a scholarship program that identifies high-performing African American students.
In winter 2000, Broadway remained a viable admission candidate even though he had yet to apply to either school.
“I felt I was okay because I was interested in getting a Black college experience and both institutions were interested in me,” Broadway says.
By later qualifying as a National Achievement finalist and scholar, Broadway became eligible for scholarship programs at both schools that guaranteed full tuition, room, board and a book stipend for four years.
For Broadway, an all-expenses-paid weekend visit to the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C., and a full-ride scholarship offer sealed the deal. He says the Howard trip made him feel at home and comfortable at the 11,000-student private university. As one of six Black students in a senior class of 607, Broadway thought Howard would provide support and nurturing that had not been available at his suburban Atlanta high school in Gwinnett County.
“I believe there’s a diversity within the Black community that I’ll experience here at Howard,” Broadway says.
For historically Black institutions, highly qualified, academically gifted students like Broadway represent a critical factor in the HBCU resurgence over the last 15 years. Schools such as Howard, Hampton University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, Florida A&M University and Xavier University of Louisiana have attained national recognition for their competitiveness in recruiting high-achieving Black students.
“It’s an important statement to make that HBCUs can attract and educate the best and the brightest of our own. I think it’s important for Black colleges to compete for the best and brightest students,” says Dr. Frederick Humphries, president of FAMU. “It raises the level of the educational process. It makes us all get better.”
But at a time when high-achieving Black students can basically write their own tickets to colleges and universities across the country, attracting those top-notch students has proven to be a formidable task for many historically Black schools.
The battle for these students is often one where the best financially endowed come out on top. Most HBCU officials say that when it comes to recruiting accomplished Black students, they are willing to — and indeed must — pull out all the stops.
A New Renaissance
High-achieving Black students have helped bring acclaim to Black institutions. In the 1990s, many HBCU students were chosen as Rhodes Scholars — a time-honored bragging point even for Ivy League schools.
Time magazine, recognizing the consistently high numbers of National Achievement scholars recruited to FAMU’s campus, named the school its college/university of the year in 1997. And Xavier enjoys national acclaim for consistently producing the highest number of medical school acceptances among African American students from any single institution.
Experts say that since the 1980s, historically Black institutions have become increasingly skillful at recruiting and enrolling the highest-achieving Black high school students in the United States. Following the period of widespread higher education integration during the 1960s and 1970s, the general outlook was that historically Black institutions no longer would be able to attract the best and brightest to their campuses.
“Many people of my generation did not choose to attend HBCUs. The sentiment was that our parents and grandparents went to HBCUs. We were going to the big public colleges and the predominantly private White institutions,” says Dr. Michael Lomax, president of Dillard University. “There was a real drain on the Black colleges.”
Lomax, who graduated from Morehouse College in 1968, says that during the 1970s, when he taught at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, he noticed a modest cohort of academically gifted students who had remained committed to studying at a historically Black institution.
In addition to losing high-achieving Black students to majority schools, a number of schools underwent tremendous financial difficulties and retrenchment.
“It was a question for quite some time of whether Black students were getting less than a quality education among many in higher education,” says H. Patrick Swygert, Howard’s president.
By the late 1980s, Black colleges and universities were experiencing something of a renaissance after the difficult years in the 1970s and early ’80s. Black institutions led by high-profile college presidents such as Humphries, Dr. Johnetta Cole, Dr. Ed Fort, Dr. Donald Stewart, Dr. William Harvey, Dr. Norman Francis and Dr. Hugh Gloster began attracting national attention.
The work of The College Fund/UNCF, along with HBCU donation efforts by celebrities such as Bill and Camille Cosby, Willie Gary and Oprah Winfrey also lent great prestige to the Black college cause.
Getting Smart About Recruitment
But increased school prestige can only be sustained through exceptional students. The most coveted pool of high-achieving Black high school students is represented by the roughly 1,500 high school seniors named as National Achievement semi-finalists each fall. Since 1964, the nonprofit National Merit Scholarship Corp. has chosen each year’s crop of top Black students based on high school grade-point average, school nomination, SAT and PSAT/NMSQT scores.
Out of the 1,500 semi-finalists, 1,200 finalists are selected and 700 to 800 of them will receive scholarships.
Each fall, the National Merit Scholarship Corp. sends the list of semifinalists to nearly 4,000 higher education institutions, according to a corporation spokeswoman.
Schools use the list to recruit high-achieving Black students such as Howard’s Broadway through mailings, alumni contacts and telephone calls.
Scholarship data show that among the 700 to 800 students who eventually become National Achievement scholars, the vast majority enroll at predominantly White institutions. Among 800 scholars who enrolled as freshmen in the fall of 1999, 114 went to 11 historically Black institutions. The entire 800 students enrolled in a total of 143 schools
For the most competitive HBCUs, that list represents a rich vein of opportunity. Last year, FAMU and Howard enrolled 43 and 41 National Achievement Scholars in their respective freshman classes. Only Stanford and Harvard universities enrolled more National Achievement scholars than Howard and FAMU in 1999.
Other HBCUs that successfully attract National Achievement scholars include Spelman College, Morehouse College and Xavier University.
At HBCUs, the admissions offices aggressively recruit semifinalists via mailings, phone calls and even local events in a given region. FAMU, for example, sponsors breakfasts and receptions in locations such as Atlanta, Indianapolis and Washington for semifinalists. Each spring, Howard sponsors an all-expenses-paid weekend trip known as the “Weekend at the Mecca” for National Achievement students interested in attending the school.
“We’ve gotten smarter about recruitment. In order to recruit [the best and brightest], we needed to adopt the latest techniques that other schools had adopted,” Howard’s Swygert says.
Dr. Carmen Cannon, associate vice president for enrollment management at Howard University, says Howard officials, alumni and students participate in year-round efforts to snag the academically gifted high school seniors even during the first weeks of the fall term.
“We continue to recruit them throughout the year and through the summer,” Cannon says.
Gia Landry, a Howard University senior from New Orleans, says the recruiting by Howard officials and students impressed her mightily and later influenced her to devote her some of her undergraduate career to recruiting other students to the school.
“[Howard officials and students] were extremely welcoming,” Landry says of her visit to the campus during the spring of her senior year in high school.
“They kept in touch with me,” she adds, noting that Dr. Floyd Malveaux, dean of the Howard University School of Medicine, was among the people who personally called to encourage her to enroll at Howard.
Claudia Eybl, a FAMU freshman, says a FAMU recruiter made a special trip to her Charlotte, N.C., high school. She says the meeting helped convince her of FAMU’s strong interest in academically gifted students. Eybl, who scored 1390 on her SAT, is a recipient of a FAMU Life Gets Better scholarship.
“I was pretty excited about getting the scholarship,” Eybl says.
While the National Achievement program has been instrumental in helping schools identify academically gifted Black students, competing for them has required institutions to develop their own merit scholarship programs.
Typically, National Achievement awards have been one-time scholarship gifts of up to $2,500 or four-year grants. The average award given in 1999 was $987.
One approach taken by schools to lure National Achievement scholars to their institutions has resulted in merit awards that give the high-achieving student a full scholarship package that pays for room, board and tuition. A book stipend often is featured as well.
Such merit scholarship programs have enabled Howard and FAMU, in particular, to compete with wealthy private schools such as Harvard, Stanford and Princeton, whose hefty endowments afford them the ability to attract Black students with generous scholarships and financial aid packages.
One critical difference, however, is that Howard and FAMU award their scholarships on merit, which makes them attractive to a student regardless of his or her economic background. Typically, the wealthiest predominantly White institutions award generous need-based scholarships to National Achievement and other academically gifted students, and require their families to contribute to the overall cost. With the need-based support, students are often required to take out loans and secure part-time campus jobs.
Reginald Wesley, a freshman at FAMU, says the promise of a scholarship covering tuition, room and board kept the school foremost in his mind when he was applying to colleges. Wesley, a National Achievement scholar, was raised by his grandmother, who told to seek admission to schools that could award him a full scholarship.
“[My grandmother] wanted me to go to a good school where I could get a scholarship,” Wesley says.
Wesley is another recipient of FAMU’s highly regarded Life Gets Better scholarship. The program, begun by Humphries in the late 1980s, epitomizes FAMU’s commitment to attracting academically gifted Black students. School officials say FAMU led all colleges and universities with the highest number of enrolled National Achievement scholars in 1992, 1995 and 1997.
To qualify for the award, a student is required to have a 3.5 GPA and a score of 29 or above on the ACT or 1200 or above on the SAT. He or she also must be a National Achievement or National Merit semifinalist and must meet admissions requirements. Students who make the cut receive either a $100,000 award that pays for four to six years of schooling or an annual award that covers tuition, fees, room and board each year.
Students also are guaranteed summer internships or research jobs that enable them to acquire professional experience long before they hit the work force or head for graduate school. Scholarship recipients also get laptop computers their freshman year.
The program is funded largely by major corporations and has brought national recognition to FAMU. Humphries says the idea for the scholarship program originated from his desire to make FAMU’s engineering program a leader in the production of minority engineers.
“I wanted to see us produce more engineers and graduates in the sciences,” he says.
Enlisting corporate support proved necessary in order to get students exposed to companies that would become their future employers, Humphries says. Knowing that they were getting highly qualified students in internships and recent graduates in entry-level jobs, companies from around the nation became supporters. The program later expanded to include freshmen seeking degrees in any discipline.
“We took the concept, which began with engineering, and applied it to all [of our academic] programs,” Humphries says.
In addition to corporate support, Florida officials in the early 1990s approved an annual $400,000 allocation, which helped fund scholarships for out-of-state students.
“[Florida officials] were proud of what we were doing in bringing these students, many of them from out of state, to FAMU,” Humphries says.
Not Just Scholarships
For its part, Howard has six merit scholarship programs that support high-achieving students. Its Laureate program, which has 46 freshman recipients this fall, provides tuition, fees, room, board and a $950 book stipend if a student qualified as a National Achievement finalist or scholar. The school also awards Presidential scholarships to students who scored above 1500 on the SAT or above 34 on the ACT. Presidential scholarships, awarded to four freshmen this fall, pay for everything, and awardees also receive a laptop computer.
Swygert says that while the scholarship programs have been critical in attracting the academically gifted, he notes that HBCUs such as Howard have had to invest millions in developing campus information technology infrastructure to remain highly viable in the eyes of potential students and their families.
“It’s just not scholarship support, it’s infrastructure and other resources. [Students and their families] expect more from their schools,” Swygert says.
Dillard University’s Lomax is one college president who has capitalized on the tried-and-true strategies and accomplishments that have attracted high-achieving students to other schools such as Spelman College, Xavier University and FAMU. Under Lomax’s leadership, Dillard has been pursuing the academically gifted as part of a broader strategy to raise the academic profile of its entire student body.
In addition to having established merit scholarship programs aimed at luring National Achievement scholars to the New Orleans-based school, Dillard also has just enrolled 10 students named as Gates Millennium Scholars. The Gates program is expected to draw high-achieving Black students to The College Fund/UNCF member institutions because The College Fund/UNCF administers the program.
“We know there are strategies that have worked for other schools,” Lomax says. “We know that we can be a selective institution. We have invested significantly in enrollment management so we can find those students.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com