Black Colleges are a Significant Part of Our History – What About Our Future?

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Dan Holly - Editor's Desk

As I write this, my daughter is trying to decide where to go to college. Her top choice is Howard University and that’s a possibility – but it’s not a certainty.

Alexis did get accepted, and there’s no doubt that Howard University is a fine institution.

In its 153 years of existence, Howard has produced a shipload of prominent graduates – among them, author Zora Neale Hurston, singer Roberta Flack, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, eminent psychologist Kenneth Clark, and actor Chadwick Boseman (of Black Panther fame). Howard played a crucial role in the civil rights movement and is so well known for developing black leaders that it is referred to as “the black Harvard.”

It would be a no-brainer except for a couple of numbers: 42,920 and 3. Those numbers represent the annual cost of attending Howard, including housing and fees (according to the university’s website) and the percentage of students who are white (according to the website, datausa; other sources give the same number or close.)

Howard did offer us financial aid, but it was not nearly as much as I had hoped; not nearly as much as I need to bridge the gap between $42,920 and the amount of money I that I can beg, borrow or steal.

Howard’s cost is not out-of-line for private universities. But just because Howard’s costs are comparable does not mean that they are affordable – at least not for me.

But, this being Black History Month, I want to talk about that second number – the percentage of students who are white. Howard is an HBCU (Historically Black Collège or University) and, like many other HBCUs, was established in the latter half of the 19th Century (1867, in Howard’s case). This was a time of legal and virulent discrimination, in which black students were not able to attend other any other colleges – and probably would not have wanted to, considering the hatred and discrimination they would have experienced.

HBCUs like Howard were not only the only universities where the descendants of slaves could go, it was the only place here they could expect a welcoming and nurturing environment. There is no doubt that HBCUs have benefited the nation tremendously – not just African-Americans; the nation as a whole.

But many have questioned in recent years whether HBCUs are still necessary and releveant. This is especially true in an era in which all unviersities are competing for students and resources. Do we still need HBCUs when back students can attend any college they want (presuming they can get in)?

I truly believe that there is a continued place for HBCUs. If you have time – a lot of time – google “racial incidents on college campuses.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education chronicles 23 incidents around the nation since August – from nooses found hanging on trees to racist tirades in classrooms to racial slurs scrawled on dormitory doors. If you think mostly white campuses are completely welcoming to back students even in 2020, think again.

But does that mean black students should spend four years of their lives – four crucial, formative years – in environments that are almost all black? Howard is actually only 86 percent black; the remaining 11 percent is made up of other minorities besides African Americans.

I worry about that for my daughter. Much as I want her to spend four years in a nurturing environment with other black students, we do not live in a world that is 86 percent black. At Diversity MBA, we are constantly championing the cause of diverse environments. Isn’t a lack of white diversity as detrimental as a lack of minority diversity?

I understand that the two situations are different. Alexis might have black roommates at Howard and might eat meals in dining halls with mostly black students, but as soon as she steps off campus, she will meet white people. In every significant interaction with authority, she is likely to meet white people. It is much, much harder for African Americans to exist completely in a black world than it is for white Americans to live completely in a white world.

Still, I’m wary of Alexis spending so much time in an atmosphere with such little diversity.

I want to support HBCUs because I think they will always be more welcoming and nurturing for African Americans than predominantly white institutions – and there will always be students who want and need that.

Perhaps the question is whether HBCUs can attract more white students so they can become more diverse yet still maintain that welcoming atmosphere. Is it a little less comfortable for those 3 percent of Howard students who are white than it would be for them on a predominantly white campus?

Perhaps, but black students have experienced this ever since legal segregation was banned. Maybe one day discrimination will be a thing of the past and everyone will feel equally welcome on any campus.

Until that day comes, it’s complicated. Ultimately, the decision as to where to go to college will be my daughters’. Maybe the next generation will figure this whole thing out. God knows the older generations have not done so.