In the spirit of Black History Month I’ve been thinking about colleges. Black colleges have long been an alternative for African-American students who seek higher education. When universities were segregated – whether by law or custom – and African-Americans couldn’t get in, many an HBCU (historically black college or university) stepped up to provide a culturally supportive, intellectually vigorous learning environment for them. Yet, controversy remains about HBCUs now that black students have broader choices.
Parents looking to help their children gain every advantage may think that an Ivy League education is the way to a successful future, but that’s not necessarily the case. Here’s a look at the advantages and disadvantages I found of attending HBCUs.
Everybody knows that there are some HBCUs that are better known for their parties and their bands than their educational programs. But it is inescapable that many African-Americans interested in preserving their cultural identity feel alienated and isolated at predominantly white schools. The concept is so controversial that Princeton graduate Michelle Obama wrote her senior thesis on it. That thesis, about preserving your cultural identity as an Ivy League university graduate, became fodder for critics who wanted to see her husband lose the election and was subsequently removed from public view.
While there are many African-American graduates of Ivy League schools who had great experiences, most HBCU alumnae speak of their college years as the highlight of their lives. They cite the rich social life and the bonding of individuals with a shared identity. As there are colleges for all kinds of groups, including Christian and Jewish colleges, why wouldn’t HBCU’s continue to be viable, especially in the face of continuing racism?
While there are certainly scholars at Ivy League institutions, at an HBCU, you are almost certain to have a wealth of black professors who are experts in their respective fields. While that could certainly happen at any school, HBCUs do tend to attract professors who also have a passion for the education of their students and who are supportive of the unique challenges of African-Americans face. If you are interested in a specific field that is lacking in African-Americans, having a professor who is in respected in that area may be an incentive and an inspiration.
Companies looking for diversity are almost certainly going to recruit on black campuses. Therefore, it may prove to be to your advantage to attend an HBCU that has already proven itself to be a pipeline to those corporations. Internships and job opportunities may be easier to get if you’re not competing with an entire graduating class. An HBCU may make it easier to find a company committed to diversity and help that company find you as well. Of course, if you’re African-American, a Princeton/Yale/Harvard degree has its own cachet, and the very name can help you get into places you might not be able to without it.
If you happen to room with Bill Gates’ kid at an Ivy League school, you probably will have made a great contact. But what if he’s a jerk who never hangs out with you? The great thing about an HBCU is that chances are you’ll make contact with folks who are in the black elite, who often send their children to the schools they went to. If you join a black fraternity or sorority, those networks are pretty strong and can help you get connected to the prominent people and organizations that they are affiliated with.
One key that may determine where best a student would fit is the field of study. Ivy League schools have great reputations, as many are the leading institutions of study in various fields. If you have the grades and other credentials to get in, and the school offers a major in an area that is considered the best in the field, then, by all means, go with the Ivy League. For example, Yale’s School of Drama is considered one of the best outside of Juilliard for acting. Certain professions like law, medicine and the sciences may help secure more prestigious placements and a more lucrative future. However, future doctors may not necessarily be better at an Ivy League university. HBCUs graduate 70 percent of black dentists and doctors, and Morehouse, Howard and Meharry are all known for graduating black doctors.
These days, financing college is a serious investment. When choosing a college, money has to be a consideration. Harvard University, arguably the nation’s most prestigious university, has offered qualified students whose parents make under $60,000 a free four-year ride. Other Ivies have followed suit. If you can get that deal, then, by all means, head to the Ivy League. But in some cases, if you stay in state or if you attend an HBCU, you can qualify for more grants and loans than at a mainstream school. There are sororities, fraternities and alumnae groups that offer scholarships based on where you go and what you study. You just have to do your research to determine what works best for you.
If you’re not the next Michael Jordan, Lebron James or Tiger Woods, you may find that both HBCUs and Ivies have their advantages. If you’re smart and have a decent jump shot, an Ivy League school may give you a chance to go to school for free based on your athletic talent. Some Ivies have competitive sports teams in non-traditional sports like tennis, gymnastics and golf. (Woods went to Stanford.) The advantage of an HBCU is that if you’re not going to get a Division One athletic scholarship, HBCUs are begging for athletic talent, as so much of it has been siphoned off to the large sports schools. You might be able to finance your education based on being pretty good, but not great, at the big-time sports like basketball and football.
So if you would’ve had the option to go an Ivy League school or a HBCU, which would you choose? Parents, which would you steer your child towards? Are HBCUs still necessary? Are they simply anachronisms now that there is more opportunity, or do they remain a viable way for African-Americans to achieve their educational goals? Do you really think one is better than the other? And why?
Thanks for tuning in….