Building off the previous blogs and the relative invisibility of HBCUs to the students they could serve well, another strategy exists to increase enrollment at HBCUS: a social media campaign that highlights the achievements and benefits of HBCUs as well as the success of their alumni. Indeed, the absence of a social media presence for HBCUs is striking, both in terms of individual institutions and as a collective. We also see an absence of positive coverage of HBCUs in the mainstream media; sadly, the accomplishments of these institutions receive far less attention than stories of institutional failure.
A collective social media campaign should feature the following: (1) a focus on a youth audience, many of whom are active on social media already; (2) identification and description of the remarkable graduates of HBCUs across the disciplines, including such luminaries as James Weldon Johnson and Toni Morrison; (3) the strengths many HBCUs have in STEM and the high percentage of graduates who progress into healthcare fields and the sciences; and (4) exemplary programs that enable HBCU students to excel in their fields and contribute meaningfully to the betterment of society. The campaign could combine speech excerpts, musical compositions, songs, poetry, art, awards, and scientific achievements and discoveries.
Although lists currently exist, one novel approach would be to construct unique, quality lists that appeal specifically to young, college-bound audiences. There could be various lists of HBCU graduates by field or career—imagine lists of young HBCU graduates who are teachers, scientists, doctors, politicians, actors, authors, or artists. There could be a list of HBCU graduates who won prestigious awards both in the United States and abroad. Importantly, these lists would have value to a wide audience—prospective students and their families, school counselors, and teachers as well as the larger population that may not have extensive knowledge about HBCUs. Improved knowledge about the strengths of HBCUs would do more than increasing enrollment—it could build pride, improve donations, and even foster more public attention for these institutions.
While there are many ways to construct such a campaign, we believe that a consortium of students at HBCUs could play a key role in energizing this social media campaign. Students, with the help of advisors, could work collectively to design the campaign, drawing on their own motivations to attend HBCUs to attract other students to these institutions. And, if the consortia became more permanent, they could change and adjust the campaign over time to stay up-to-date with future college hopefuls.
Another option to develop a social media campaign is for HBCUs to hold a contest where ideas for campaigns are submitted and selected by committee. For example, individual colleges or universities could design a social media campaign that could then be judged and selected by a panel of experts among HBCUs. The key here is that the campaigns would champion HBCUs in general as opposed to a single HBCU and they would be student-designed—this would allow all HBCUs to benefit. There could be a short film/video component to the contest, where students produce films that showcase the strengths of HBCUs with lists, music, interviews, collages, images, etc. The students would only be limited by their imaginations.
There are strong reasons to foster a student-centered, student-created social media campaign. First, these students will know—better than many adults—what would attract high school students to college in general and HBCUs in particular. Second, students at HBCUs would themselves gain skills in social media campaigns that would serve them well in the job market.
In terms of cost, the contest or collective effort could produce course credit. That could make it fiscally feasible, as it could be built into a course rather than require additional funding. Or, participating HBCUs could each donate $1000 in order to crowdfund the effort. The collective money would certainly be enough for a student-led initiative to launch through social media channels like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat, among other outlets.
There is nothing to lose (except perhaps time and a modest amount of money) to enact change by adopting the strategies suggested by this series of blog posts. The time for lamenting the state of HBCUs and their declining enrollment is long past; the time to act is now, as the population of diverse, low-income students continues to grow. These are the students of tomorrow but we need to help them today.
This series represents a serious effort to move the needle on student access to HBCUs. Even if our suggestions are tweaked or challenged, we hope that we have at least begun the conversation in earnest. Thank you for reading!
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.