HBCUs vs. PWI: Racial identity and Academic Confidence

David Triche

David Triche

A recent journal article entitled, “Motivational and Judgment Predictors of African American Academic Achievement at PWIs and HBCUs,” suggested that Black student achievement at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) requires additional effort compared to Black student achievement at an HBCU (Reeder & Schmitt, 2013). Upon learning this, I became interested in studying the experiences of Black students that attend PWIs and how these students’ experiences differed from those that attend HBCUs. More specifically, I wanted to examine the differences in perceptions of academic confidence between students at various universities. Before I arrived at Clark Atlanta University, I’ve had a predominantly White K-12 education. I enrolled in an HBCU because I wanted to learn more about Black history, be immersed in Black culture, and be around more individuals who looked like me. Within the past 3 years at Clark, I have become more academically confident and have been able to gain a greater sense of pride in my racial identity than I did in my previous years of schooling.

Past research indicated that the type of institution can moderate the relationship between academic confidence and the psychosocial variable of racial identity for African American students (Adames Et al., 2016; Klimstra Et al., 2017; Oswald Et al., 2004). Previous studies also discussed the need for Black students at PWIs to develop behaviors that help them cope with an environment where Black culture was not prominent, and how this coping might affect the development of their academic confidence and racial identity (Cross & Strauss, 1998; Smith, Payne, 2002; Suddler).

Aside from the aforementioned research, there simply isn’t enough literature on academic confidence and racial identity in students at HBCUs. I recently conducted a quantitative and qualitative study. In the qualitative study, I examined two focus groups; one that consisted of 5 students who transferred from PWIs to an HBCU, and one with 5 students who started their collegiate career at Clark Atlanta University.  My quantitative study was a survey using questions from the Cross Racial Identity Scale and the Academic Confidence Scale. The survey was sent out to students at a PWI and several HBCUs across the country yielding a total of 40 participants whose voices were included in the study. In both studies, I found that students who transferred from a PWI to an HBCU felt that they had higher academic confidence at an HBCU than a PWI. In the focus group with participants who have had both PWI and HBCU experience, students claimed they felt more comfortable asking for help in class and participating in lectures at an HBCU than they did at their PWI. Students felt that attending an HBCU has helped them increase their self-esteem because of the atmosphere and the constant positive affirmations they received from their peers and their professors. One of the participants who transferred from a PWI  stated that they felt more self-confident after transferring to an HBCU. A current student at Clark Atlanta University shared that they felt like they were contributing to Black excellence by attending an HBCU and claimed they found joy in seeing Black people graduate from college, engage in community service, and achieve their goals—this student shared they loved going to an HBCU because they were able to see other Black people winning (Triche, 2018).

Although I did not attend a PWI, in my years of K-12 schooling, I felt invisible. The school I attended didn’t take the time to recognize the important figures in Black history. The curriculum at my predominately White high school was very Europeanized and the teachers only talked about the White pioneers in their particular subjects. At Clark Atlanta, we learn about all of the first Black pioneers across all fields. At Clark, many professors do not make the students feel like they are a number in their classroom. The professors are intentional with being culturally competent and inclusive of everyone in the classroom. In the classroom at an HBCU, I’ve had experiences when professors made every effort to build a personal relationship with students and often times, these faculty members become like family. Although they are like family, many of my professors hold students to a high standard and students feel an excitement and joy in being in Black surroundings.

HBCUs are often well connected and many provide opportunities for students to secure jobs with companies that are seeking Black scholars. At HBCUs, students do not feel out of place on their campus. My HBCU has also taught me how to navigate the often inequitable institutions in America while also embracing my Blackness. Being at an HBCU there is constant involvement with Black political and social activities. Jessie Jackson, Stacy Abrams, and Roland Martin are among the few who have been to Clark Atlanta University to discuss the importance of voting, police brutality, and the importance of HBCUs. Just walking on the Promenade on Market Thursday any student can find 20 vendors selling products for us by us including Dashikis, natural hair products, shea butter, and t-shirts with names of those who were victims of police brutality etched across the chest. This is what I think makes all HBCUs great; all Black students should feel an increase in racial pride and identity and have the opportunity to be surrounded by Black excellence.

At an HBCU, we matter. Although attending an HBCU is not a goal of all Black college-going students, I think if Black students choose to attend a PWI, they should urge their institution’s administrators to implement more programs that promote inclusivity and Black uplift. PWIs must consider how their institutional structure perpetuates academic doubt and suppresses academic confidence for Black students. Perhaps PWI administrators can start with hiring and ensuring more faculty are culturally competent. Or even, acknowledging their shortcomings and understanding that their institution may not meet the needs of their Black students. If PWIs are unable to provide these spaces, there is always space at Black colleges where Black students can feel appreciated and respected.

David Triche is a senior at Clark Atlanta University (CAU) majoring in Psychology. David chose to study at Clark Atlanta University because of CAU’s long and illustrious history of offering African American students a world-class education. David knew many students attending Clark Atlanta University would have similar backgrounds, circumstances, and similar cultural experiences to his own. David believes CAU offers an atmosphere of community and collaboration among the student body and professors. He notes the faculty have been there to help nurture and guide him throughout his college education thus far.

David grew up in Frankfort, Illinois where he learned to play several instruments, wrestled, played tennis and was a proud member of the Kappa Leadership Institute, Chicago. While a member of the Kappa League, David had the opportunity to study abroad in Chile, South America for two months for a language immersion program.

Currently, David is an active member of the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society, as well as the National Society for Leadership and Success, and is also a part of Psi Chi the International Honor Society in Psychology.