A&T: An HBCU powerhouse rises in Greensboro

It was the week before Thanksgiving, and Aggie Stadium was awash with blue and gold.

North Carolina A&T State University had just defeated its archrival, North Carolina Central University, 24-10, to earn the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship and a berth in the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta. The bowl was in December, and the undefeated Aggies blew out traditional HBCU power Grambling State. 

» GO DEEPER: Perilous times for black colleges 

» FULL COVERAGE: The entire "HBCUs: A Threatened Heritage" series

In winning the national championship, A&T proved to be the best black-college football team in the country. But over the last decade, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University – known for its engineering programs and with a legacy that includes “The Greensboro Four,” Jesse Jackson and Ronald McNair – has moved quietly and resolutely toward its goal of becoming the best black college in the country.

“This is truly an exciting time to be an Aggie,” said Chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr.

With 11,877 students enrolled this fall – including a record 2,309 freshmen — A&T is the largest black college in the country, having surpassed Howard University, Florida A&M, Jackson State and Texas Southern. Those new freshmen came on campus with an average GPA of 3.51.

“We are fortunate to have been trending in the upward direction for the last few years,” said Erin Hill Hart, A&T’s associate vice provost for enrollment. “There is no question of where we trying to go and when we are going to get there.”

The school, founded in 1891, has added more than 1,300 students in five years; by 2020, A&T plans to enroll 13,500.

“We are very fortunate in North Carolina,” Hart said. “We receive good support from the state. If you pull up any other state, it is not the same, and that is heartbreaking.”

While Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina have been cutting back on higher ed spending, A&T is among the best-supported black public colleges in the nation.

For the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years, the state of North Carolina allocated A&T $91 million annually. That pales next to the nearly half-billion that the flagship University of North Carolina receives, but it is more than any other public HBCU in the state and more than at least four predominantly white public schools in North Carolina.

This spring, A&T plans to open its largest building — a new 150,000-square-foot student center. The university has also broken ground on the $90 million Engineering Research and Innovation Complex (ERIC).

A&T’s College of Engineering produces more African-American engineers than any university in the nation.

“We love that students, who can go anywhere, are choosing North Carolina A&T to pursue their engineering degrees,” said Robin Coger, the dean of the engineering school. “That means we have been vetted by the parents and students as the place they want to trust. We know that the academics of the students is their priority.”

“When I was there, we could see the progress happening, and that was 15 years ago. So the school’s success is no surprise to me,” said software designer Horace Williams, a 2004 A&T graduate.

Williams, who lives in Atlanta, graduated from A&T in 3½ years. He recently launched “Empowrd,” an app that instantly shows you who your elected leaders are and connects you with their phone numbers and email addresses.

“A&T instilled in me a confidence in my own intelligence. I went to A&T on academic probation because I almost flunked out of high school,” he said. “But I had people there who, when they saw me struggling, pushed me. When they saw me doing well, they pushed me harder. That is a hard thing to do when you have so many students, so you know they were doing it on purpose.”

‘I had no comeback for that’

The Coleman family of Charlotte has divided loyalties. Father Troy went to A&T. Mother Danielle went to North Carolina Central. A few months ago, after A&T defeated Central, the Colemans’ daughter, 12-year-old Logan, innocently asked her mom for help fixing her hair. But Danielle couldn’t look past the blue “Future Aggie” sweatshirt Logan was wearing.

She refused to help unless Logan changed her “offensive sweatshirt.” But the seventh-grader reminded her mother that her father gave her the shirt and that it was “College Day” at school.

Coleman promised to buy her an NCCU shirt for Christmas. Logan declined the offer, however, announcing that she was going to A&T to join the marching band as a Golden Delight Dancer.

“I had no comeback for that,” Coleman said. “How do I compete with her aspirations to be a Golden Delight Dancer? I may have to concede that this Coleman girl is going to follow her dad’s footsteps and attend North Carolina A&T. I can live with that.”

Coleman carefully tied a golden bow into her daughter’s hair.

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