Black Colleges: Are They Still Needed?

Howard Homecoming attendees weigh in on the relevance of HBCUs.

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    Kerry-Ann Hamilton/

    For this year’s legendary homecoming weekend at Howard University, graduates, current students and several celebrities gathered in Washington, D.C., for a series of events that felt like a family reunion.

    There was Dream Day, an afternoon seminar where activists (Jeff Johnson), entrepreneurs (filmmaker Issa Rae) and celebrities (reality-TV stars Vanessa and Angela Simmons) shared inspirational tips. The school also hosted a fashion show and YardFest — an outdoor concert that featured big-name rappers such as 2 Chainz and Drake, hip-hop vets Naughty by Nature and local acts. In addition, there was a gospel concert featuring Fred Hammond and a step show in which frats and sororities demonstrated their moves.

    While many came to reaffirm their love for one of the highest ranked HBCUs in the nation, there are other schools, such as Morris Brown College and Dillard University, that are struggling to stay afloat.

    Some critics have even wondered if the schools that distinguish themselves from predominantly white institutions (PWIs) are still necessary. The Root caught up with homecoming attendees to see just how relevant people think HBCUs still are.

    While many came to reaffirm their love for one of the highest ranked HBCUs in the nation, struggling schools like Morris Brown College and Dillard University hang in the balance. Some argue that schools that distinguish themselves from predominantly white institutions (PWIs) are no longer necessary. The Root caught up with homecoming attendees to see just how relevant people think HBCUs still are.

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    Stacy-Ann Ellis

    Maya Allen (Howard '15), 20, student; Portland, Ore.

    The Root: Based on your experiences, would you encourage your child in the future to attend an HBCU?

    Maya Allen: Coming from a predominantly white area my whole entire life, the first time I ever visited an HBCU was the first time I was ever even inspired by a person that looks like me, so that made a huge and lasting impression on my dream to actually go to an HBCU. I would encourage my child to go to an HBCU to get a balance. I would want them to be able to be around people of different races but also be able to be around people who are the same color as them, and they also relate to them and get different experiences and views on the world.


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    Stacy-Ann Ellis

    Shannon Everett (Howard '11), 21, administrative assistant at Top Shop; Brooklyn, N.Y.

    The Root: Why do you think HBCUs are still relevant, and why did you choose one?

    Shannon Everett: If HBCUs are the only ones that are going to give black people a chance and no one else will, it seems like the only right way to go. They need us; we want them. They’re still relevant. Just the culture and the legacy — I knew I had to be a part of that. And I’m grateful I did.


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    Stacy-Ann Ellis

    Tavia Mills, 22, accountant; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

    The Root: How does the HBCU experience compare to your school’s experience?

    Tavia Mills: My college experience [at Florida Atlantic University] was kind of boring. I probably would’ve enjoyed my college experience a lot more if I went to an HBCU just because I would be surrounded by people that are a lot like me. I would have had a lot more exciting stories. I feel a little left out. I loved everything [about Howard’s homecoming]. Everyone has so much energy and so much school spirit. My school lacks that.


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    Tania Paul, 23, public relations associate for Digitas; Stamford, Conn.

    The Root: Coming to Howard’s homecoming and seeing the atmosphere, do you feel like the HBCU experience is a necessary one?

    Tania Paul: I’m totally down with the HBCU vibe. My college experience would’ve been completely different if I attended one, honestly. [She attended University of Central Florida.] But I visit [Howard] a lot. They’re definitely necessary; I just think that in situations like this for certain people, work ethic-wise, I might have been a little distracted with everything that’s going on all the time.

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    Maya Allen

    Kali Stewart (Howard '15), 19, student; Orange County, Calif.

    The Root: What is it that drew you to attending an HBCU?

    Kali Stewart: To have so many in one place is so powerful and motivating. The experience is something you will never be able to replace with any other type of school. You are able to really see the potential of the African-American population. You see black love, black education, and black pride — everything you’ve ever wanted come together when it comes to the African-American culture.


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    Stacy-Ann Ellis

    Isaiah Adams (Howard '10), 24, finance associate; New York City

    The Root: Some argue that HBCUs aren’t relevant anymore. Do you agree? Where would you have gone if not to Howard?

    Isaiah Adams: African-American institutions have always been a pinnacle for the prime African-American education in America. You think about many of the prominent people in the world, and a majority of them are graduates of historically black colleges and universities. We need the inspiration. If I didn’t go to Howard? Honestly, I don’t even want to think about that because I had such a great time at Howard. I don’t want to think about what my life would’ve been if I didn’t have the experience of having gone.

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    Kamal Cudjoe, 23, fitness trainer; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

    The Root: After visiting Howard, what is your perspective on attending HBCUs?

    Kamal Cudjoe: It’s actually my first HBCU homecoming ever, and the next one will be hard to top. I’ve always admired HBCUs. I feel like it’s a great place for similar people to get together and have good times as well as learn and become educated. Our own education is the most important education.


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    Stacy-Ann Ellis

    Elan Brewer (Howard '13), 21, student; Lansing, Mich.

    The Root: What benefits do HBCUs provide?

    Elan Brewer: They teach us a lot of good fundamentals for the workplace, especially in that environment. [During] my internship over the summer, I was the only black person that was a part of the internship, and I had to do all the presentations because people from the white schools didn’t know how to do presentations.


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    Stacy-Ann Ellis

    Rasheem Rooke (Howard '01), 38, photographer; Washington, D.C.

    The Root: How relevant do you think HBCUs still are in this day and age?

    Rasheem Rooke: Coming from someone who went to a traditionally white school for undergrad [SUNY Albany] and then came to an HBCU for grad school, HBCUs are extremely relevant. In other [college] environments, some people may not comfortable. They may have to go against racism, white supremacy, internalized suppression on a daily basis, and they may not know how to deal with that. The social environment is very key. Everything you do outside of the classroom prepares you for the real world more so than what you do in the classroom. Books give you the theory; social interaction gives you the practical applications.


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    Stacy-Ann Ellis

    Ryan McCaulsky (Howard '12), 22, freelance graphic designer-photographer; Bronx, N.Y.

    The Root: Do you believe HBCUs are still essential to society? Do you plan to give back?

    Ryan McCaulsky: When you’re looking for the real superlative black candidate, you have to come to an HBCU. It’s a lot harder to find them in PWIs because they don’t shape and mold us the way HBCUs usually do. We have to invest in ourselves as a people. I know it’s kind of difficult, and it’s a financial strain, but we have to realize the relevance and value of HBCUs.

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    Stacy-Ann Ellis

    Titilayo Akinmusuru (Howard '07), 26, physical therapist; Washington, D.C.

    The Root: How important are HBCUs to the black experience? How do you explain the financial hardships they face?

    Titilayo Akinmusuru: We’re very thankful for the money that started them up for the private universities, but I don’t think that HBCUs are a priority for the government, so then it gets on the back of the alumna and alumni to support these institutions, which honestly does not happen the way it should. There’s probably no better place to feel completely immersed with the intelligence of the black people and the culture of African Americans as a whole … and making sure that we are aware of our culture, of our history.

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    Stacy-Ann Ellis

    Michael Hamilton (Howard '12), 22, music-industry intern; Raleigh, N.C.

    The Root: What key differences are there between attending an HBCU and attending a PWI?

    Michael Hamilton: My brother attends a PWI, and I’ve noticed just by talking to him that a lot of the values that are instilled in us are not instilled in black students that attend PWIs. As far as the networking aspect, as far as the way we present ourselves, and how as far as being African American and setting yourself apart in the corporate world and being in that corporate environment — that’s something that is not stressed to African Americans in PWIs.


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    Maya Allen

    Veronique Joseph, 17, student; St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

    The Root: Do you think HBCUs are still relevant and necessary in the American education system?

    Veronique Joseph: They are [relevant]. Especially people like me who come from an island where it’s 95 percent black, I feel more comfortable here and do better with my education without worrying about culture shocks.

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    Stacy-Ann Ellis

    Ryan Hamilton (Howard '11), 23, student; New York City

    The Root: How do your graduate school and undergraduate school experiences differ?

    Ryan Hamilton: It’s one thing going to New York University — I’ve definitely gone to programs and it’s nothing but white men or white women who have excelled — but going to an HBCU, you’re able to see those individuals who are black who have excelled as well in the industry to give you the confidence to know that you can also do it.

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    Maya Allen

    Ayanna Telfort, 39, health care advertising agency executive; Brooklyn, N.Y.

    The Root: As a professional, how important do you think HBCUs are in preparing students for post-graduate life?

    Ayanna Telfort: Even though I didn’t attend one I feel like they are extremely relevant, and I wish I had. [She attended Duke and Fordham University.] I work in an industry where I had to count on my hand over the 15-plus years how many people of color I’ve had as supervisors or even colleagues. When you have that happening it makes you realize there is still a long way to go to create a blend in the workplace. I work in an area where it should represent the community we serve, and it doesn’t really do that. It’s nice when you can have institutions that really focus on multicultural audiences and having an effect to bring communities together.

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    Maya Allen

    Tyler Jenkins (Howard '16), 18, student; New Castle, Del.

    The Root: As a freshman, what exactly drew you to Howard University? Why choose an HBCU?

    Tyler Jenkins: I grew up in a school where it was 98 percent white, so I feel more at home here. I feel more understood and more comfortable here than I would at other universities. Alumni usually do very well after they graduate. It’s really cool because here at Howard, I feel a part of something.

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