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HBCU Survive and Thrive

Don’t get it twisted: HBCUs offer so much more than PWIs

As a Morgan State graduate, let me explain why

Every couple of months, a debate reignites over whether historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) educate black students better than predominantly white institutions (PWIs). This week, the debate went down on Twitter once again after a University of North Texas student brought the conversation back to our attention.

The thread of 11 or so tweets explains why the user thinks PWIs are more beneficial for black students — mainly because they create spaces of ready-made support rather than spaces that have already been built to support others. The debate has gone on since the federal government mandated integration in America’s schools. Before that, HBCUs were virtually the only option for black folks to get a secondary education. It’s also a debate that will go on for as long as HBCUs continue to exist.

Choosing the college that fits you best is so important because you’re choosing where you’ll call home for four years. So if a PWI is the right place for you, then go for it. But there’s one portion of this student’s argument that really bothers me: that many black students only attend HBCUs for the parties, with little regard for or insight about their futures.

It’s no secret, of course, that HBCUs are known for having great homecomings and parties. But they’re also known for showcasing the rich cultural diversity within the black community, as well as for producing some of the brightest black college graduates in this country. I’m a proud HBCU graduate, and I was able to attain that status because of the way Morgan State University, its administrators and professors, never gave up on me.

As a point of reference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Morgan State a national treasure. The National Trust and Morgan State are partnering to develop a preservation plan that stewards its historic buildings on campus and planning for the future of the university, which was founded in 1867.

When I didn’t have the money to continue school, I wasn’t just looked at as an enrollment number. Administrators helped me find financial aid and made a way for me to stay. When my grades slipped, I wasn’t just looked at as a failure. My professors and peers helped me get back on track. My “black experience” wasn’t just swag surfing and partying, it was taking an African diaspora class — a university requirement for all students, no matter the major — and being taught how to navigate my career as a black male in a predominantly white country. Additionally, they’ve helped me refine my journalism skills and then apply them toward amazing professional development opportunities like the Rhoden Fellows Program at The Undefeated. And I am not unique.

Students at HBCUs and PWIs should be careful about generalizing about each other’s experiences, especially when they are pejorative. It’s easier to avoid false narratives and angry tweets that way.

In 1837, the African Institute, now known as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, was established to give African Americans the opportunity to get a higher education. That experience just wasn’t possible at most PWIs until the 1950s. Since then, more than 100 HBCUs have become more than just institutions of higher learning. These schools are safe havens for black students to express themselves, honor their culture and heritage, and grow in a country that denied them that right because of prejudice and racism. The fact that HBCUs continue to serve this function in 2019, nearly 200 years after the first students enrolled at Cheyney, is something to celebrate, not denounce.

On that note, there is something I’d like to applaud about black students at PWIs. It seems that they have found or created a community of black folks who stick together and support each other. Finding a solid crew is beneficial for most college students, especially when you identify as a minority. When I enrolled at Morgan State, I had to find a group of friends and join organizations.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities

This won’t be the last time someone writes an essay about the merits of an HBCU education or tweet about why PWIs are more beneficial to black students. But if you are going to have the debate, be respectful and get your facts straight. There are things that HBCUs and PWIs can learn from each other about how to best support their black students. After all, the goal is to ensure that black students have access to the institutions that are best suited to help them grow.

Isaiah George is a senior multimedia journalism major from Temple Hills, Maryland. He's a reporter for BearTV at Morgan and is a fan of all the major Washington, D.C., sports teams.