By FRANK WITSIL | DETROIT FREE PRESS
Keyanna Evans, a high school senior, has decisions to make about college.
She was accepted, she said, at all the historically black colleges and universities, HBCUs, where she applied: Grambling State (her top choice), Alabama A&M (the university in the state where her mom’s family is from) and Tennessee State (which is Oprah Winfrey’s alma mater).
Of the predominantly white institutions, which Evans refers to as PWIs, she got an offer from Eastern Michigan and was deferred at Michigan State. The University of Michigan, Evans said, seemed way too big for her to even consider.
After years of enrollment declines at HBCUs, they are now on the rise thanks to students like Evans. They’re also having a major media moment thanks primarily to Beyoncé and her “Homecoming” documentary which dropped on Netflix this month.
HBCUs enrolled more than 298,000 students at the start of the 2017-18 academic year, marking the first enrollment increase for the sector since 2011, according to HBCU Digest.
And that is while enrollment at all colleges is sliding, especially in the Midwest.
Although HBCUs make up only 3% of the country’s colleges and universities, they enroll 10% of all African American students and produce almost 20% of all African American graduates, according to the United Negro College Fund, a group that funds scholarships for black college students.
“There has been an upspring of black empowerment, of people feeling better about being black,” said Evans,18, who attends Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit. “People in our community feel more comfortable getting the HBCU experience.”
On Saturday, a coalition of organizations will try to help Evans and hundreds of other metro Detroit students talk to HBCU recruiters at a free event, Destination HBCU Experience Initiative & College Fair.
From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., HBCU alumni and representatives from more than 30 of the 102 active HBCUs in the nation are expected to be on hand to talk to prospective students at Southfield High School for the Arts & Technology.
“HBCUs offer a unique educational offering that is not present at most universities,” said Jennifer Smith, one of the college fair organizers. “When you are the first in your family to go to college and you don’t have a blueprint, you want to learn in an environment that is focused on you.”
In addition to the college fair, she and other organizers are putting on workshops on applying for admission and financial aid, selecting the “right HBCU for you,” and getting a closer look at HBCU sports, which can be a benefit to minority athletes.
Smith, a native Detroiter and the founder of Closing the Gap Detroit, said that she and other HBCU graduates in Michigan are trying to do more to recruit the next generation of black leaders to their schools.
Keyanna Evans, right, 18, a senior at MLK High, and Terry Edwards, 17 a senior at Southeastern, crunch college tuition numbers with Jennifer Smith at WeWork, in Detroit.
KATHLEEN GALLIGAN, DETROIT FREE PRESS
From the Civil War to Beyoncé
Many of the nation’s HBCUs — half public and half private — were created after the Civil War to educate black Americans who were prevented from attending other colleges because of their race.
While segregation and Jim Crow are part of America’s past, HBCUs and the unique college culture born of their history still offer a powerful call to African Americans. And now HBCUs are making a renewed push for students of all races.
These colleges, HBCU alumni have said, can be a refuge from the racially divisive rhetoric, violence and discrimination that, based on various news reports, is increasing nationwide.
“It’s definitely a safer environment for African American students,” said Sean Rouse, another fair organizer and a graduate of Tennessee State in Nashville. “You see what’s happening at other universities. Students are being harassed. They are treated differently by their professors. There’s just flat-out racism.”
From left, Terry Edwards, 17 a senior at Southeastern High School, and Keyanna Evans, 18, a senior at MLK High, meet for college counseling at WeWork, in Detroit, Wednesday, April, 24, 2019. They are weighing were they will go, and trying to decide whether historically black colleges and universities are right for them.
KATHLEEN GALLIGAN, DETROIT FREE PRESS
Evans said she is leaning toward Grambling.
She has never visited the Louisiana university, and she isn’t able to get much guidance from her immediate family because they have had limited experience attending college.
Her father, she said, is a plumber. He never went beyond high school. Her older sister went straight to work as a secretary after graduating high school. Her mom had some post-secondary education, just enough to become a nursing assistant.
Her older brother briefly attended Virginia University of Lynchburg, an HBCU. But after one semester, Evans said, he came home to Detroit, found a job, and never went back to college.
Others, Evans said, are lighting the way for her.
Jennifer Smith, Evans said, has been one of them, and has had a big influence on her life. Smith graduated from Grambling, and, for the past several months has been talking up how great it is to be a Grambling Tiger.
One other draw to Grambling, Evans added, is that it has a Beyoncé connection.
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter — the singer, songwriter, actress, director and dancer — has said she “always dreamed of going to an HBCU,” and to Evans, Beyoncé embodies what she wants to be: A strong black woman.
Beyoncé’s “Homecoming,” a Netflix film about the making of her 2018 Coachella performance, highlights HBCU culture and traditions, including performances by those institutions’ iconic marching bands and dance teams.
And earlier this month, Beyoncé hosted a private party where Grambling dancers and band members performed, adding even more prominence to the school. At the top of its Twitter account, the school added a photo of the pop star in a Grambling cap.
An HBCU network, and some challenges
The media also is buzzing about HBCUs beyond Beyoncé.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a Howard University graduate, has touted her HBCU credentials as she campaigns for president. Howard, in Washington, D.C., is one of the nation’s largest and most prominent HBCUs.
Thurgood Marshall — the first African American U.S. Supreme Court justice, who also successfully argued several civil rights cases, including Brown v. Board of Education — graduated from Howard’s law school.
Harris has said Howard University helped shape her political identity.
Spelman College, one of only two all-female historically black colleges, announced it is building an 85,000 square-foot Center for Innovation & the Arts, the Atlanta college’s first new academic facility since 1996, thanks to a $30-million gift.
It was the largest gift from living donors in its 137-year history.
In making the donation, Ronda Stryker, a wealthy trustee, and her spouse, William Johnston, of Portage praised Spelman for providing “a superior education for students,” adding the school’s “alumnae are leaders across every field imaginable.”
Still, as PWIs step up efforts to recruit nonwhite students, families and college advisers may be having fewer conversations about the significance and benefits of applying to HBCUs.
“Many of our young people, I don’t think, consider HBCUs as an option for them,” said Solon Phillips, chief legal officer of Southfield Public Schools and college fair organizer. “I’m happy there’s a renewed focus on historically black colleges.”
Phillips — a Pontiac native who earned an undergraduate degree from Florida A&M, an HBCU, and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin said that’s why he tries to tell students about his own experiences as often as he can.
A half-century ago, more than 90% of African American post-secondary students educated in American were enrolled at HBCUs. In 1980, that number dropped to 17%, in 2000, if fell to 13% and in 2015, it was less than 9%.
Nineteen HBCUs have closed since the 1930s.
Among them is Lewis College of Business, Michigan’s only HBCU. The two-year institution was founded by Violet Lewis in 1928 and specialized in business. It shut its doors in 2013.
And Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina — the other all-female historically black college — is trying to stave off financial and accreditation woes. In contrast to HBCUs overall, it could be on the verge of closing as its enrollment dwindles.
In the 10th grade, Evans said, she didn’t really consider attending an HBCU, even though she was familiar with what they represented.
“The thought of going to a PWI like Michigan State was always — not forced into my head — but one of the main things I was urged to reach for,” Evans said. “I wanted to go to that school so bad.”
It took Smith’s influence, Evans said, for her to see herself on another path.
On Saturday, Evans hopes meeting other HBCU graduates will expand her network of supporters.
“I want to start a relationship with the people who represent Grambling,” Evans said. “I would also like to work on my scholarships, though, too, because, whew, college is expensive!”
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Destination HBCU Experience
What: A coalition of three organizations — Closing the Gap Detroit, Detroit HBCU Network and Southfield Public Schools — have joined together to offer free workshops and a college fair.
When: From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday
Where: Southfield High School, 24675 Lahser Road, Southfield
To register: www.DestinationHBCUdet.com