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Opinion: Why my daughter chose to attend a HBCU


The AJC has published a great series of stories about Historically Black Colleges and Universities by reporters Ernie Suggs and Eric Stirgus.

The project, which has generated discussion around the country, talks about why students choose HBCUs and why they don’t, as well as the financial pressures facing some of the institutions.

One of the elements in the ambitious project is this first-person essay by deputy managing editor Tracy Brown, a University of Georgia graduate. In this column, Brown discusses her daughter’s decision to attend an HBCU. 

By Tracy Brown

Early in the college application process, I pushed my daughter to apply to at least two HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Not because I had strong feelings about her attending a black college. I just didn't want her to rule it out as an option for her college experience. 

It wasn't until we visited three of the schools she had received acceptances from -- Hampton University, Spelman College and Howard University -- did either of us fully entertain the notion that she might spend the next four years at an institution with a culture that was very different from the college life I valued greatly at the University of Georgia. 

I remember her being pleasantly surprised after spending a day at Hampton, then the next at Howard, followed by two days at Spelman's Spelbound acceptance weekend. 

Honestly, among the HBCUs, I was silently rooting for Hampton. It was located in a quiet college town and offered an enticing scholarship. We had purchased T-shirts at both schools, and I got a strong indication of where things were headed when she wore the Howard shirt on the flight back to Atlanta. On the plane, the call of "H-U" from a Howard alumnus onboard followed by the expectant "You Know" response beckoned her to a point of no return. 

During the summer months after commitment day, I fretted about her decision, the high tuition costs, life in a big city far away from home, and the mixed messaging about HBCUs. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution launched an important project that explores some of the challenges and harsh realities facing many of the country's 101 black colleges and universities: steady declines in enrollment, graduation rates and funding. 

"HBCUs have long occupied -- and still occupy -- an essential place in higher education," said Richard Halicks, a senior editor who supervised the HBCU project. "The Spelmans and Howards of the world are flourishing, probably always will, but many schools are struggling. For example, we found deep reductions in state support for public HBCUs, particularly in South Carolina and Louisiana. We found that predominantly white schools, once off-limits to black students, are now admitting far more African-Americans than HBCUs are.  But we also found countless reminders of the unique and likely irreplaceable role that HBCUs play in the lives of their students. We believe that's why our findings are so important." 

Some experts who talked to AJC reporters Eric Stirgus and Ernie Suggs predict that dozens of HBCUs will close in the next two decades. That's a sobering notion when nine schools, including Morehouse and Howard, just celebrated their 150th anniversaries. It's also discouraging news for current students, proud alumni and parents. 

I often think about those consequential moments that lured my daughter to Howard's Bison lovefest. The campus visit that displayed so many proud faces of students, teachers, campus leaders and organizations. The pages of history that weren't just being taught but being lived. The visit, the connection on the plane, and an accepted-student chat group gave her something she didn't know she needed until it was within her grasp -- a sense of belonging. She now covets famous alumni connections to people like former Atlanta mayors Kasim Reed, Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young, and author Zora Neale Hurston, who was part of a poetry assignment long before my daughter knew there was a Howard University. 

Still, her first-year experience was a mixed bag. There were make-or-break moments that still leave me with some parental bitterness. I have yet to meet a parent who hasn't had their own version of what I call HBCU dysfunction within the administration, classroom, student culture, housing, outdated infrastructure, financial aid, etc. 

Through it all, though, my student has thrived in a way that even I doubt she would have been able to do at UGA, Georgia State, Auburn, Mizzou or the University of South Carolina. It's not the school as much as it is the people there who push her to know and accept herself while pressing her to be greater. 

The "H-U" callout on our flight came from Howard's Atlanta parent advocate Cheryl Riley, an alumna herself. Riley connected that day with my daughter as she does with dozens of potential students each year. 

Last December, Riley and Thina Johnson helped lead an effort by the Howard University Alumni Club of Atlanta to host an event for local high schoolers. The event at Drew Charter School drew more than 240 students and parents and included panel discussions with current students, workshops along with presentations from associate director of admission Tammy McCants and "rock-star professor" Greg Carr, chair of Howard's Afro-American Studies Department, who spoke on "Why HBCUs Are Still Relevant." 

"Mecca in the ATL is one of our signature events to culminate Howard University's 150th year," Riley said. "We focus on the whole student. For us, it's not just about getting a student to be accepted to Howard; we want them to be prepared so we offer SAT prep, mentoring, an annual bus trip, as well as providing students and their parents general guidance with admissions, financial aid and housing." 

As someone faced with the "Is it worth it?" question every semester when we get the tuition bill, I believe it is. Not just for the on-campus experience but for the doors that have been flung open with early career opportunities. 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.