Ralph Jones Jr., a 16-year-old academic prodigy from Atlanta, recently shocked some Americans when they learned that he choose to enroll at historically Black Florida A&M University instead of Harvard, Stanford, Cornell and more than 40 other elite traditionally White institutions.
Critical questions and comments were ringing in public forums. Why would this African-American choose a historically Black college over an Ivy League school? Does he not know the Ivy League road is better paved and lit up for him to travel quickly to economic security?
“I would have picked Harvard, hands down!” wrote one commenter on The Root, which interviewed Jones about his decision. “There is too much competition and to have the Harvard name and prestige, it’s priceless! FAMU is a good school, but regardless of the family feeling you go to college to better yourself and your chances for employment.”
Other respondents on The Root, usually members of the HBCU family, defended Jones and applauded his choice.
This debate came on the heels of a heated national argument as to the mission of HBCUs, tossed into the public discourse by Wall Street Journal editorial board member Jason Riley in late September. Riley, an African- American, responded in a WSJ editorial to President Barack Obama’s pledge earlier in the month to invest $850 million in HBCUs over the next decade.
HBCUs were necessary when African-Americans could not attend most historically White colleges and universities (HWCUs), Riley contends. But now since there is “no shortage of traditional colleges willing to give Black students a chance” and the vast majority of African-Americans are choosing HWCUs, “Black colleges are at a crossroads,” he writes.
Riley says the SAT scores of students at the “better Black schools — Howard, Spelman, Morehouse” still “lag behind those at decent state schools like the University of Texas at Austin.” He also cited the low graduation rates at HBCUs and a study by two economists who lamented about a “substantial wage penalty” for attending HBCUs.
Finally, he urged President Barack Obama to consolidate uneconomically small Black colleges, bring in for-profit entities to manage other schools and downgrade others to community colleges.
Many academics challenged Riley and this old attack on the HBCU idea, which HBCUs have combated since the late 1960s. His piece, “Black Colleges Need a New Mission,” was the latest in a seemingly upsurge of condemnation towards the supposed worthlessness of HBCUs, propelled by “post-racial” and “race-neutral” mythology.
None of the critical responses to Riley’s column (and his growing contingent of powerful supporters) could compare in impact with the public decision made by Ralph Jones Jr. Words move people, but actions are idea-shattering. And Jones shattered Riley’s ideas, which were already fragile.
By choosing FAMU — one of the nation’s finest HBCUs — over the country’s most elite and heralded White institutions, he declared to the world that an HBCU is better for me than anything any elite traditionally White college and university has to offer.
Why did he choose FAMU?
Because of its top engineering program, which is “one of the best, if not the best, in the state,” he told The Root. And, he said, “I believe Florida A&M is unlike any other college in the world just because of the HBCU experience here: the step shows, the band, the night life. It’s all unique. When it comes down to it, the family feeling — I didn’t feel that at other institutions because I visited a lot of schools. And this is the only one [where] I felt like I was part of something larger.”
From the available knowledge, students generally choose schools based on two reasons. They choose the school that is going to best prepare them and provide the most opportunities for their post-college career to build economic capital. And students assess what schools will best provide them with the opportunities to develop their social selves and build social and cultural capital — schools where they feel at home away from home.
So why are HBCUs still needed? For many African-Americans, they provide that unmatched social and cultural atmosphere and a good academic experience. We need to supply demographically focused (though not exclusionary) schools like HBCUs with the same funds that the elite schools receive.
Censuring HBCUs for their supposed academic follies compared with the Ivies and research institutions is like an employer censuring underpaid workers for not performing as well as the overpaid employees. Obama’s pledge is something but it’s not nearly enough to erase the historic funding gap (and wealth gap between African-Americans and Whites) that directly has led and will continue to lead, in most instances, to the academic gap.
Yet, despite the gap, why are HBCUs not at a crossroads? Riley and his supporters only need to ask the new FAMU Rattler and the thousands of other African-Americans who every year spurn the Ivies for HBCUs.
Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University. He is on leave as an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta. Visit his personal blog “The Progressive Corner” at progressivecorner.wordpress.com.