Helping HBCUs Get the Attention and Attendance They Deserve

Part 1 of a 4 Part Blog Series

The facts are indisputable: enrollment is an important matter for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as these institutions must compete with Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) and other institutions for students.* As such, HBCUs need to make their values, strengths, and rich history both visible and compelling to prospective students, particularly new high school graduates. This blog post is the first in a four-part series that focuses on strategies to improve enrollment at HBCUs.

While there are many issues confronting institutions of higher education, enrollment is key to a college or university’s success because, absent a massive endowment, having fewer students creates greater fiscal constraints for an institution. Short term, this can mean cuts in personnel, lack of programmatic resources, absence of resources to innovate, receipt of funds from dubitable arrangements like guarantee games, and general diminution of a sense of well-being. Declining enrollments can also limit access to capital near and far term. This can lead to a lessening of improvements such as deferred maintenance and weak technology infrastructure for both classroom use and institutional operations.

There is no simple answer for increasing enrollment. Surely, there are “mega” solutions that call for massive infusions of cash, whether from private sources or the government. Grants from foundations are options and so are active supports at the local, state, and national levels. It is our view, however, that these approaches—while worthy—will take time and may not occur quickly enough to showcase the value of HBCUs and get them the resources they need before some fail and others flounder miserably.

The suggestions in this blog series benefit from being relative low cost and achievable over a short timeframe. But, the proposed strategies need HBCUs to work together as a collective to advocate for improved treatment and championing of these suggestions to raise the profile of their institutions. HBCUs need to own these initiatives. They need to put pressure on the relevant outsiders.

Beyond growing enrollment, there is a larger purpose with respect to all of our suggestions: the importance of fit. Many, although assuredly not all, HBCUs serve first-generation, low-income, and minority students well. While their retention and graduation rates may lag behind other institutions, HBCUs have a long and often storied history of serving vulnerable populations and enabling a good fit for a student. They can offer a supportive learning environment where students do not feel like a fish out of water and where academic success is both expected and rewarded.

That said, even finding a well-fitted college turns out to be far from easy for many students, who turn to resources like college guidebooks to guide their decisions—and this is the first area that can be changed to improve enrollment at HBCUs.

Pesky College Guidebooks

College guidebooks, available in high schools, libraries, and for individual purchase, aim to provide prospective college students with an array of accurate information about institutions they may be interested in attending. Two of the most ubiquitous guides are The Princeton Review and Fiske Guide to Colleges. To be sure, no guidebook—regardless of its quality—is sufficient to enable a student to make an informed decision where he or she will succeed academically or personally. However, these guides remain a commonly used resource.

Still, the two guides are riddled with flaws as they relate to HBCUs. Here are four of the most notable issues that can have an impact on their readers’ decision-making: (1) unexplained differences in lengths of entries that silently signal which institutions have more to offer than others; (2) absence of storytelling with respect to key positive aspects of a particular college, suggesting by negative implication that it is lacking in “merit” or “acclaim”; (3) lack of labeling institutions in ways that would identify listed colleges as HBCUs with pride; and (4) lack of clarity as to how the “best” colleges are identified, leaving little recourse for the startling absence of many HBCUs on the lists.

Consider these concrete examples:

In a recent edition of The Princeton Review, the length of entries for Xavier University (Louisiana; HBCU), Brown University (Providence; PWI), and Howard University (Washington, DC; HBCU) are varied without explanation, and in a guidebook, length of entry can be a surrogate for quality. The Brown University entry had almost two complete columns, which also appears to be the longest entry in the book. However, while Howard University had the same number of subsections Brown in terms of content categories, its entry was barely one column. Xavier was barely one column too. It is true that if every entry were as long as Brown’s, the length of the guide would be unmanageable. To be fair to all institutions, however, there needs to be greater standardization in entry length, shortening entries like Brown’s that are given too much length and lengthening entries for places like HBCUs that have been historically glossed over.

The recent edition of Fiske Guide to Colleges identified only 4 HBCUs out of the 300 plus colleges described, leading one to assume other HBCUs are not even worthy of mention. Similarly, length of entry is used to signal quality. In this guide, Howard and Xavier, both HBCUs, each have 2 pages versus the length of profiles for some Ivy League schools (Harvard has 4 pages and Brown has 3.5 pages).

The absence of the use of the category “HBCU” has implications as well. In The Princeton Review, the only indication that institutions have a large minority population was the identification of percentages. Moreover, The Fiske Guide to Colleges used euphemisms like “the Wellesley of the black world” with respect to Spelman, for example, instead of the more accurate—and federally recognized—language of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

There needs to be real pressure put on these two college guides and others to treat HBCUs more equitably and in ways that showcase their value on a myriad of levels. This begins by recognizing the guides’ existing deficiencies, something that has not been done before to our knowledge.

Guidebooks are but one avenue students can pursue to identify colleges they may be interested in attending and where they can achieve success. As reflected here, The Princeton Review and Fiske Guide to Colleges fall short in their treatment of HBCUs. Unfortunately, these are not the only enrollment hurdles challenging students interested in HBCUs. The next blog in this series focuses on the deep flaws of the College Scorecard recently developed by the Department of Education, particularly in its treatment of HBCUs—stay tuned!

* There is evidence that enrollment is rising at HBCUs for reasons yet to be fully understood.  That rise notwithstanding, this blog series speaks to the enrollment needs/concerns of many of the HBCUs in our nation.

Tyler Carrillo- Waggoner is a sophomore at Bennington College. She is an abstract artist that works with markers/colored pencils/pencils.

Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Pierce Huff recently graduated from Bennington College.

Aria Killough-Miller is one of four students from Bennington College’s spring 2016 course Understanding HBCU’s. A junior at the time of the time of this article, she is studying different means of conveying information, particularly Spanish, writing, and music. She is interested in social justice and hopes that this article contributes to making the world a little bit better.

Jessica Zeng is an undergraduate in Bennington College. There, she’s interested in studying how social action can be made through literature and art. Back at home in Brooklyn, New York, she has an adorable cat called Bokchoy.


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