Last week I went to Howard University’s homecoming, and like Deon Cole, Chance the Rapper and Malia Obama at the 2012 inauguration, I was reminded that once you see the bands stomping, the music playing and the quad popping, you know that nobody throws a party like an HBCU.
In between panels on the future of HBCUs and the Golden Era: ’80s and ’90s party (flannel and throwback jerseys in full effect), I noticed something in the various Instagram and Facebook posts from friends at Morehouse and Spelman colleges, not to mention Texas Southern University and Morgan State, last weekend. These crowds are getting bigger. New dorms are being thrown up. And you meet more and more transfer students.
HBCUs across the country are experiencing record-breaking incoming classes and transfer numbers. The question is, why did his happen, and how can we keep the party going?
The negative narrative on HBCUs has been stuck on repeat for almost 40 years. The schools peaked in the 1970s (pdf), but integration into predominantly white institutions, federal funding discrimination, financial mismanagement and administrations that make the DMV look efficient plagued what were once the crown jewels of black academic and cultural achievement. In fact, if you type “crisis” and “HBCU” into Google, you get hits for days. However, the narrative no longer matches up to the facts.
North Carolina A&T, the largest HBCU in America, posted a record-breaking incoming class of 2,300 students this fall, giving A&T its largest student population ever. Kentucky State saw a 162 percent increase in its freshman class from summer to fall registration. Spelman College saw first-time applications jump from just over 5,000 in 2015 to over 8,000 for the 2017 fall semester, on top of a record 47 transfer students.
HBCUs that had been posting losses for years saw their numbers jump, too. Virginia State University’s incoming Class of 2017 is 1,139 students, a 50 percent increase over just two years ago; and Elizabeth City State posted its first net growth for incoming freshmen in seven years. And these aren’t the only schools. Top tier to bottom tier, HBCUs have seen double-digit increases in their freshman enrollments in the last two years: 49 percent at Shaw University, 22 percent at Dillard, 39 percent at Tuskegee and 32 percent at South Carolina State.
Why are black students suddenly coming to HBCUs again in droves?
“They want to be on a campus where they’re valued and appreciated,” Tiffany Nelson, director of admissions at Spelman College in Atlanta, told The Root.
She notes that the whole attitude toward HBCUs has been changing among high school students who are making college choices. Whereas maybe even a decade ago some African-American students, especially those whose socioeconomic status gave them options, would pass up HBCUs as “black schools” that wouldn’t prepare them for the “real world,” now, according to Nelson, “They’re walking up to the [college recruiting] table before we even say anything.”
HBCUs have always played a role in lifting up African-American students who may not come out of the best schools, investing in our community in ways that PWIs may dismiss or deride, but this trend speaks to a more fundamental change in how African Americans are viewing college education. According to several administrators and parents I spoke with, black students are no longer simply choosing between going to the University of Maryland, College Park, and Morgan State University, state institution to state institution. They’re choosing Howard over Penn State; they’re choosing Spelman instead of Stanford.
HBCUs are no longer just safety schools, or options for only “certain kids”; they have become viable, equal options in the eyes of the student-parent educational consumer team, even in comparison with seemingly untouchable “elite” institutions.
“A lot of it is just cost,” said Jessica Johnson, head of the Scholarship Academy, a decade-old nonprofit that trains students and parents on how to develop a sustainable scholarship plan for going to college. Johnson herself is a bit of an expert—she’s one of those kids who scored over $250,000 in scholarships to pay for her four years at Howard.
HBCUs are, on average, $6,000 less a year than PWIs and are, in many cases, more willing to work with students in financial distress than other institutions. Further, despite former President Barack Obama’s horrible revision of the Plus One Loan program, which harmed many HBCUs, black colleges are getting more innovative in tuition funding. Many historically black colleges and universities are starting to recruit students as early as ninth grade, and are reaching out to parents about long-term financial planning so that tuition is more affordable.
“Even if the government doesn’t perform, we can and do more,” Nelson told The Root, referring to creative financial strategies that schools are starting to employ.
Another large reason for the change is the cultural mood in the country. As racial hostility increases, black students are more likely to consider quality-of-life issues, not just among other students but even among faculty.
“There’s this whole cultural environment that’s making HBCUs and their rich history of cultural activism more attractive,” Johnson said.
This is a generation that is coming of age during the Black Lives Matter era, the #OscarsSoWhite era, the Colin Kaepernick-kneeling-for-racial-justice era. Students want to be in an environment where they can explore these ideas and be challenged, but not harassed, for speaking out. Who wants to pay $60,000 a year to live in a dorm named after a slave owner or to have to post the hashtag #ItooAmHarvard for people to realize they’re on campus?
Even before President Donald Trump was elected, Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough stated on NPR that campus racial tension increased the attractiveness of historically black colleges. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented over 140 incidents of hate crimes on campuses across America in just the first 10 days after Trump was elected. That was on top of the 780 hate crimes reported on campus from 2015 to 2016. Open threats at the University of Missouri, the killing of Richard Collins III at the University of Maryland, and Charlottesville, Va., being turned into spring break for terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan make hanging out on the quad or the yard in Golden Bear, Bison or Pirate gear all the more attractive.
Of course, not everything on every single HBCU campus is perfect. Not all HBCUs are equal in terms of student quality, administration or management. However, improvements have to start from somewhere, and after years of decline, with all that is happening in America, there couldn’t be a better time for black colleges to have a renaissance.
Jason Johnson is a professor of politics and journalism at a historically black university, Morgan State University, in addition to being political editor at The Root.