By Jarrett L. Carter, HBCU Digest
The mid-1990s ushered in a cultural renaissance for historically black colleges and universities. “A Different World,” the sitcom spinoff of the wildly popular “Cosby Show,” was a sign of a second golden age for HBCUs, a period of increased attendance, broad cultural recognition, competitive athletics and community buy-in beyond the gates of the black ivory tower.
Dr. Jerainne Johnson-Heywood and Dr. Scherise Mitchell-Jordan came to Morgan State University as freshmen in the ‘90s, and following stellar undergraduate careers, went on to earn doctorates from the University of Southern California and the University of Maryland – College Park, respectively.
Both were recruited from their native Jamaica to join other high-achieving students in what is now known as Morgan’s School of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences, and talk fondly of their college experiences, expressing appreciation for the training they received at their HBCU.
But with those positive reflections come strong reservations about their children following in their footsteps and attending a black college.
“People at Morgan were very interested and very helpful in moving me towards what I wanted to do,” says Johnson-Heywood, a Materials-Chemical engineer in Erie, PA. “But one of the things I didn’t necessarily like, and I’ve found this to be true at other HBCUs, is that there are certain freedoms that aren’t given at HBCUs that are afforded at predominately white institutions. It seems that administrations at many HBCUs has a mindset that was developed eons ago, and is not applicable to today’s culture.”
Among those freedoms: Alcohol and visitation leniency, with many HBCUs employing campus restrictions on visitation and alcohol consumption, even for residential students over the age of 21. While designed to encourage moral behavior among students, it is among the hot topics of high school seniors and freshmen in home-for-the-holidays talk on the positives and negatives of the HBCU experience. When compared to co-ed living facilities and visitation policies at larger, predominantly white institutions (PWI), it is almost always a negative point of emphasis among reasons to avoid attending an HBCU.
“The policies are draconian in nature and insult the intelligence of the students,” says Morgan senior Robert Chittams. “HBCUs must make policies comparable to those at a PWI if they truly want to compete.”
Johnson-Heywood specifically cites a lack of study abroad opportunities at HBCUs as a major deterrent to attracting today’s students and instilling confidence in parents of high achievers.
Morgan State, a national leader among HBCUs in the production of Fulbright Scholars, is one of a handful of the nation’s 105 HBCUs encouraging international learning experiences for undergraduates, and potential careers in the Foreign Service. But many HBCUs do not actively field or promote study abroad programs for students, and in a shrinking global marketplace, Johnson-Heywood believes that a lack of international opportunities deprives black students of the invaluable experience necessary to be competitive with Ivy League and internationally-trained counterparts.
For Mitchell-Jordan, now a scientist at a California PWI, a lack of direction into graduate education and professional development has her worried about the future direction of HBCUs.
“When I started Morgan State, my goal was to attend medical school. Based on the experience of my peers who went to other universities, I don’t think that I was advised enough on the opportunities that were available to me,” she says. “Basic information about graduate school was available, but information about recruitment to graduate schools, I don’t think that information was present there.”
To counter the perspective, many HBCUs have ramped up efforts to improve career advisement and customer service, two historic trouble spots at black colleges nationwide. North Carolina Central University, for example, has received national recognition for its Quality Service Initiative, a metric designed to ensure the best experience possible for students, whom will eventually become tomorrow’s donors.
With alumni giving at HBCUs nationally hovering below 10 percent, and growing questions about the financial future at prestigious historically black institutions like Fisk University and Morehouse College, the need to define black college value is more pressing today than it has ever been in the 150-plus year history of HBCUs. Former NCCU Chancellor Charlie Nelms recently suggested that diversity is a key element to the sustainability of HBCUs, a sentiment shared by Mitchell-Jordan.
The HBCU environment, she says, may be counterproductive to long-term professional goals of HBCU graduates.
“I’m a big proponent of diversity, so I don’t think that HBCUs are necessary in today’s world,” Mitchell-Jordan said. “We live in a very diverse society, so I don’t think there should be a university for minorities. Personally, after we leave college, there may be some reservation against graduates who attended minority institutions. I think it’s a barrier against us.”
Johnson-Heywood offers a different perspective.
“It is a good environment where professors look like you and share your experience. They have advanced degrees, and you get to see that accomplished black people aren’t just athletes or celebrities. However, there is a stigma of HBCUs that seems to hold graduates back more than it seems to push them forward. It seems that employers, peers in the workplace look down upon you because of your background at an HBCU.”
While both share deep reservations on sending their children or advising others to attend HBCUs, neither says they are absolutely against HBCUs that show marked improvement in academic and professional development areas.
“If I were to see that a minority institution could provide the opportunities that would prepare my daughter for a solid future, I would not hesitate to send her to a minority institution,” says Mitchell-Jordan. “It’s just that after moving on from Morgan, I saw that all of the information I needed -- career counseling, internships, etc. -- I did not receive.”
“HBCUs have made a lot of positive improvements since I graduated,” says Johnson-Heywood, who has a nine-month old daughter. “Many of the things that were not available or made available to me as a student are now in place for today’s students to benefit from. But, when you look at the top 100, 150 institutions in the United States, you don’t see HBCUs on that list. And there’s no reason for that. There’s no excuse for why our institutions cannot provide the education and the opportunities that make them competitive with the best in the country and in the world.”