I Didn’t Go To an HBCU. Maybe I Should Have

Written by Shereem Herndon-Brown for Understanding the Choices

Bold title, right? I’ll start by stating that, like most Black college graduates in this country, I graduated from a predominantly white institution (PWI). I am proud of my educational accomplishments, I often ask myself if I was detrimentally deprived of experiencing HBCU culture. As an adult, I’ve lived in Atlanta and the DMV and witnessed “HBCU love.” What is this? Call it an affectionate, almost magnetic embrace immediately upon seeing each other. HBCU alumni lead with hugs, not handshakes, and if you’ve ever attended an HBCU homecoming, you know what I mean.

PWI Black people: have you ever had your “blackness” (ignorantly) questioned by an HBCU person? I have, and I hated it. My co-author – a very proud Morehouse College graduate (who actually works at a PWI and recruits Black students, but whatever) admits he once wasn’t sure how “Black” I was. Ewww. It was not until he learned that I pledged Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. as an undergraduate and that my wife attended an HBCU that he gave me a “pass” or, better yet, a “Black Card.” I can ignore him now, but I know plenty of HBCU grads who often ask PWI grads: Why did you choose to go somewhere that tolerates you versus celebrates you? 

Woah. 

Too much? Too drastic? Unfair? Or just foul? 

I know I’m not alone in this. Black PWI grads are often in positions where we have to defend our “why” we chose a PWI. For some, it was a conscious choice, and for many others, especially those of us from the northeast who went to independent schools, may have been steered away from HBCUs. HBCU culture is not ubiquitously prevalent in the North as it is in the South, and we may be the college-life losers for that. 

Am I calling you a loser? No. Am I invalidating my or your PWI experience? Absolutely not. 

What I am asking you to do is think beyond yourself and consider the times. This is an important lesson that is less about what we had versus what we can offer our children. We’re facing a higher education system that literally just passed a law NOT to consider race in admission at the selective PWIs. Many of these schools are the same ones that some Black people aspire to send their children to. Early admissions returns are not pretty, and I predict that this will inevitably result in fewer of us being admitted to the “top” 100 schools in the country. We’re at a time when Black people must go back to basics and not allow our vision of success to be blurred by the assumption that these “prestigious” schools offer our children a better chance to excel in their professional careers. 

Woah. 

Lots to unpack here, and maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so. The same schools that we fought to integrate less than 70 years ago now have legitimate and legal reasons to turn us away. The blow that this will do to our never-ending pursuit of educational opportunities and, in many ways, wealth has to be reassessed. By you – yes, you, as a parent of an elementary, middle, or high school student – so your child can explore various educational options. HBCUs, for almost 200 years, have been the bedrock of Black success, and for the past 30 years, some of us have turned our backs on them. 

Woah. 

When going through the college search process many moons ago, I knew I wanted to be around as many Black people as possible, with parameters. It had to be a “prestigious” school able to impress my white peers and teachers. I applied to Wesleyan University Early Decision because, at the time, its moniker was “diversity university.” It was known to have a strong population of people of color, and I wanted that after being in independent schools for twelve years. After visiting campus during the 1991 pre-frosh weekend (yes, I was a junior, not a senior. Don’t ask), I was convinced this was where I wanted to be. And to this day, I will stand ten toes down that in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, Wesleyan was the HBCU of the northeast. Yes, I said it. And other people have agreed with me. We had all Divine 9 organizations, different cliques, and crews, and there were too many of us to know everyone’s name. Just a simple head nod pleasantry. That was enough for me. 

Someone is laughing at me right now, and that’s ok. What I don’t want you to do is laugh at the prospect of your students or children enthusiastically considering an HBCU. 

Truth: some of us were led, mistakenly, to believe that HBCUs are subpar. Whether it’s the physical plant or tales of never-ending financial aid lines during registration, we must change this thinking. It’s unfair to our ancestors.

Peep these statistics: 

HBCUs are responsible for: 

75% of Black PhD’s

46% of Black Business Executives 

50% of Black Engineers 

80% of Black Federal Judges 

85% of Black Doctors 

50% of Black Attorneys 

75% of Black Military Officers 

40% of Black Dentists 

50% of Black Pharmacists

75% of Black Veterinarians

Did I mention HBCUs only make up 3% of the colleges and universities in the United States? 

Some HBCU graduates only need one name. Oprah. Kamala. Spike. SamJack. (Ok, I cheated a little). 

And many others do not get enough recognition. The late great billionaire, Reginald Lewis (VA State); award-winning psychiatrist and addiction expert, Dr. Nzinga Harrison (Howard); General Manager of the Detroit Lions and NFL Executive of the Year, Brad Holmes (NC A&T), and so many others who are making an impact in all facets of society. 

I’ve never met an HBCU grad who wishes they went to a PWI. Never. I meet a ton of PWI grads who wish they would’ve gone to an HBCU. Why? Because the ages of 18 to 22 are so precious and, in retrospect, many of us needed the self-awareness and support that HBCUs are known to cultivate and give freely. 

This chasm between some of us – HBCUs vs. PWIs – is unfortunate, but it’s real. When Tim and I started writing our book, I wanted the title to be “HBCUs vs PWIs.” Wisely, Tim encouraged me to see beyond this. He reminded me that our aim was to elevate and amplify the conversation; to do that, we needed to be inclusive. I can be provocative, but I will never impede progress. Black folks bickering is not a positive. 

Please know, all my PWI people, this is not an indictment on a decision we made X amount of years ago. I do not regret going to Wesleyan; I met amazing people, spent a semester in Kenya, and have great friends and frat. What I do regret is not even considering HBCUs. While they may not be for everyone, it is very short-sighted not to consider an HBCU for your child. Redefine success. Celebrated, not tolerated. 

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