This February, leaders of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities traveled to Washington to meet with the new U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, and representatives from a number of government agencies in order to begin this new relationship. Before several of the presidents and chancellors made their remarks, DeVos opened the convening with hers. She made the statement that "[HBCUs] are the real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” I wrote this quote down in my folder. At the time, I saw this as her attempt to bridge her school choice background with the work of HBCUs. As we all know, the blow-back was tremendous. And by the next day, during a luncheon address as part of a Congressional Fly-In on HBCUs, she amended her comments.
But there is a choice being made when it comes to historically black colleges and universities. Since Brown v. Board of Education and the integration of Southern universities that followed, most black students have chosen not to attend HBCUs. We’ve gone from a monopoly, enrolling over 90 percent of black students prior to the Brown decision, to less than 10 percent today. I was part of that new wave of black students in the 1980s who came from all-black public school systems but opted out of attending an HBCU, and instead ventured into a new educational environment. In 1985, I enrolled at the University of Georgia, 24 years after it was forced by court order to desegregate.
As the exodus from HBCUs continues, a question must be raised: Have too many black students and their families made a poor choice by leaving HBCUs? Over the course of the past few years, new studies and national events have indicated that not choosing to attend an HBCU is perhaps doing harm to black students, their undergraduate experiences, and their future prospects.
One of the drivers of this exodus has been the belief that better-resourced, predominantly white universities are simply preferable to black colleges. The logical choice for some families has been that if you can go to the “better” college, you will have a better outcome. But a 2015 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, titled “Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine,” challenges this theory.
The very first sentence of the AAMC’s press release reads: “Since 1978, the number of black males applying to and attending medical school in this country has declined.”
In 1980, there were 463,000 black men enrolled in higher education. By 2015, that number had swelled to 998,000. If the number of black male collegians doubled in almost four decades and most of those students attended predominantly white colleges, having fewer black males in medical schools today means those young men might have made a poor choice. Similar studies show flat or lower numbers of blacks attending law school, as well.
While black students have been admitted to some of these 'better' schools, they have not been accepted."
While black students have been admitted to some of these “better” schools, they have not been accepted. When I speak on college campuses and meet black students, I hear story after story of their feeling alienated, unaware of basic resources on the campus that could help them prepare for careers or graduate and professional school. On these campuses where they pay to attend, they simply occupy space without fully accessing the resources that space provides.
What makes this situation more tragic is that while fewer black students attend HBCUs, they aren’t even attending the “better” institutions. A study by the Hechinger Report found that not only is the proportion of black students enrolled in public flagships small, it is declining. Similarly, a report in The Atlantic noted that while black student enrollment at colleges has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, at top-tier institutions the share of black students has declined since 1994. Since 1994, black enrollment at top-tier schools has been basically flat, while it has increased 40 percent at associate degree (two-year) institutions, and 114 percent at other schools, such as for-profit colleges, which have been under fire for high costs, predatory recruiting, and poor academic quality.
Denied admission increasingly by the private elites and flagships, black prospective students are actually choosing two-year and for-profit colleges over HBCUs because they believe they will have a better educational experience. They won’t. A 2015 Gallup study found black graduates from HBCUs had a “well-being edge” over their peers who did not attend HBCUs. HBCU graduates were stronger in all areas, including purpose and financial well-being, twice as likely to feel their professors cared about them, and three times as likely to have felt support. In addition, the Brookings Institution recently found that HBCUs do a better job than the “average” postsecondary schools moving low-income students into upper-level income quintiles.
With decision day looming, black students and families should consider these three ideas in order to find a college that is the best fit. First, are they choosing fit or fluff? We are a brand-name nation, and we ascribe value based on the name. Frank Bruni’s 2015 book, which all prospective college families should read, gives you this advice in its title, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Brand-name schools do not guarantee success.
Next, will you accept the school for what it is? Black student protests on many predominantly white campuses over the past two years are partly the result of these same students’ agreeing to attend schools with limited diversity, and then all of a sudden expecting diversity overnight. As my wife likes to say, don’t get mad at people in France because they speak French.
Finally, know what is important to you. In recent years, we have learned through campus protests that black students want to be around other black students. They want to have black faculty and administrators as mentors and a curriculum that reflects their experiences. They are looking for spaces on campus that reflect their culture, that are free of racial micro- and macro-aggressions. Those who willfully choose colleges that don’t reflect what’s important to them have chosen poorly, and the blame is all theirs.
Black colleges are a better fit, and ultimately a better choice for not all but many more black students than are presently benefiting from this option.