HBCU or PWI? Wrong Question, Right Opportunity

HBCU or PWI? Wrong Question, Right Opportunity

Many of you, who have been following The Social Scholar, know that I advocate for equity and equality in education, career and life, particularly for people of color and the poor. I am a strong proponent of education and more than half my posts are dedicated to highlighting stories about inequities in our educational system, as well as stories of progress and triumph. For a greater understanding of my background and the impetus for The Social Scholar, I invite you to read my very first post: Welcome to The Social Scholar. Once you read that post, hopefully you will understand this current post even more. It centers on what I believe was the wrong question, but a right opportunity to draw attention to educational choice and support.

She Must Have Bumped Her Head vs. Keeping it Real

Recently, I read an article on my Facebook news feed about a young African American woman who turned down a full scholarship to Harvard University to attend Howard University, an historically Black university located in Washington, D.C. The comments section was full of opinions about her decision. Some thought she was crazy to forego an education at arguably the country’s most prestigious university, a predominantly white institution (PWI) and coveted Ivy school. Those in the “she must have bumped her head” camp made note of the quality of education, state of the art resources and future access to opportunities she was potentially abandoning by choosing Howard.

The other side had its share of reasons why she made the right choice with Howard. The “keeping it real” camp cited the fact that many of the country’s most notable African American leaders are graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). That camp provided a strong argument that HBCUs provide a more nurturing and culturally affirming environment for African American students and that leads to a better quality education and stronger cultural identity. They assert this difference is what produces more confident African American leaders.


Which camp is right and where am I going with this? Two places.

One, it’s about choice.

I think the young woman’s decision is to be applauded not because she chose an HBCU over a PWI, but more because she put herself in a position to have a choice and to choose which was right for her. It is obvious that she took care of business throughout her academic career leading up to her decision. To have the opportunity to choose between two distinguished universities is reward for her diligence. I think we miss the greater point if we use her decision as a jumping off point to argue whether HBCUs are better than PWIs at educating African American students. For another student, the right choice may have been Harvard. For the young woman in question, it was Howard. I would hope that we would celebrate her accomplishment regardless of the choice she made.

I am a graduate of two PWIs and I had phenomenal experiences at both. I was extremely fortunate to learn under some of the best scholars, both Black and White. I received nurturing from some and not so much from others. It gave me a realistic picture of what I would encounter in the workplace and in life. I relied on family, friends and sorority sisters for a well-rounded support system. While I am thankful for my experience, I also know there were some African American classmates who floundered in the PWI environment. The universities I attended are large and can seem overwhelming and impersonal to some students, regardless of color or ethnicity.

black college students

However, I also have family and friends who attended HBCUs and they would emphatically affirm the “keeping it real” camp. They often talk about their education in glowing terms, and most often remark the cultural component as a major differentiation. Still, I’ve known others who started their college careers at HBCUs and ended up transferring to a PWI for various reasons to finish, or chose a PWI for graduate school. While they enjoyed the cultural aspect and agreed that some teachers and administrators were nurturing, they also said some were not nurturing at all. My sister did the opposite. She and I attended the same university for our undergraduate education and then she chose to attend Howard Law School. She thrived in both environments and appreciated the different experiences.

My point is this, we should want our students to be in a position to select the universities which are right for them, right for the experience they need and seek, right for the academic studies they want to pursue, and right for the level of support they need to be successful academically and socially. It’s about having choices. That’s my first point.

Two, it’s about paying it forward.

For those of us who are alumni of these HBCUs and PWIs, we have an obligation to give back and to make these universities more accessible to students of color and those living in poverty. With our money, talent and advocacy, we have to work to ensure the universities that nurtured our educational growth are also dedicated to nurturing our children and grandchildren. I’m talking about creating more equity and equality in education.

For many of the large state and private PWIs, alumni giving provides a wealth of resources and programs. What is not on par at many of these universities is representation of African Americans and other students of color. Greater involvement is needed in areas of funding needs-based scholarships, creating policies and programs designed to increase enrollment and graduation rates of underrepresented groups, and training in diversity and inclusion for students, faculty and administrators.

For HBCUs, many alumni giving levels are in single digits percentage wise. Let’s start there. Even a commitment of $25.00 per month multiplied by thousands of alumni can go a long way.  It takes money to attract and retain top scholars and researchers, to build state of the art programs and facilities and provide scholarships and financial support to deserving students and students in need. At Claflin University in South Carolina, nearly 50% of their alumni contribute to their school. Here’s a list reported by theU.S. News & World Report of the 10 Historically Black Colleges Where Alumni Contribute Most.

Currently, I give to the two PWIs I attended and I serve on boards at both. At the University of Georgia College of Education, I serve on the Board of Visitors. I led a team that came up with the 1908 Campaign designed to encourage giving from everyone and especially the thousands of young alumni early in their careers. Tying back to the 1908 date, which was the inception of the College of Education, the 1908 Campaign asks alumni to give $19.08 per month to help fund needs-based scholarships. Simple approach. Impactful return. It is important to me to have a voice and to help influence the development of programs and policies that will increase equity and access for African Americans, Hispanics, the poor and other underrepresented groups at these institutions. I believe that a diverse educational environment lends itself to a much more diverse and inclusive work environment.

black female college graduateI am not stopping at my beloved alma maters. I have great pride in and respect for the scholarship and mission of our country’s HBCUs. Many of our greatest African American leaders do and did in fact come out of HBCUs. The educators and administrators there are dedicated to a cause beyond the paycheck. They know that bound up in their work is an opportunity and a responsibility to prepare the next African American leaders, to provide affirmation of their students’ personal and cultural identities, and to be an extended family member when necessary – part of the village. My parents, brother and many other family and friends walked the halls of these great institutions and we should all do our parts to ensure their continued success. Within this next year I hope to begin a needs-based scholarship fund for students at Florida A&M University (FAMU) desiring a career in education. The Pinkney-Harris scholarship will be in honor of my parents and maternal grandparents who were phenomenal educators and all alumni of FAMU.

In closing, this post is more of my personal reaction to the story of the young woman who selected Howard over Harvard. I am proud of her and those like her across our country. The discussion opened the door to a larger conversation I wanted to have. I thought some reactions to her decision focused on the wrong question. For me it wasn’t as much about whether HBCUs are better at educating African Americans than PWIs. As we know, that answer can vary depending on the person. It was about ensuring our students have a choice, ensuring they are prepared, and ensuring they and the institutions they attend have the resources and environment to succeed. It is about prompting us and holding ourselves accountable to taking action that will enable their success. I encourage you to reach out to your alma mater today and find out how you can play a bigger part in helping your institution attract and graduate more students of color and those living in poverty. Pay it forward.

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