Applications to HBCUs rise dramatically as nationwide college enrollment falls

The number of undergraduate students has dropped by almost 10% during the pandemic. But it's been a different story for some time at many historically Black colleges and universities. Applications are up nearly 30% at many of these schools and top-tier HBCUs are increasingly becoming the first choice for some of the most sought-after students. Special correspondent Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The total number of undergraduate college students in the U.S. has dropped by almost 10 percent during the pandemic, but it's been a different story for some time at many historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, where interest and funding have increased.

    Applications were up nearly 30 percent at many of these schools between 2018 and 2021. And top-tier HBCUs are increasingly becoming the first choice for some of the country's most sought-after students. Yet HBCUs face some fundamental challenges too.

    Special correspondent Hari Sreenivasan has this report. It's the first in our latest series on Rethinking College.

  • Cadence Patrick, College Student:

    I turned down Harvard and U.C. Berkeley.

  • Sekai Parker, College Student:

    Harvard, Penn, Yale, Duke, USC, Emory, right down the street, Vanderbilt.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    These are all the places sophomores Cadence Patrick and Sekai Parker turned down to come to Spelman College, and all-women's HBCU, or historically Black college and university, in Atlanta.

  • Cadence Patrick:

    There's no you have to pass this test to prove that you're good enough, to prove that you're smart enough, because, I mean, we have already shown our excellence.

  • Sekai Parker:

    In high school, I noticed, like, if I had a good academic standing or a success, it was more so like, wow, I didn't know you could do that, rather than this is what's expected of you here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For Parker, on a premed track with a health science major, it was her experience at her majority white high school that led her here.

  • Sekai Parker:

    I feel like I had the responsibility to represent for the Black community, but also speak for other people about their experiences that I have no idea about.

    It was very exhausting having to represent all the time.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Patrick, who is studying computer science, said her parents were split on her decision. Her dad favored Harvard, her mom Spelman.

    For her, it came down to a sense of belonging.

  • Cadence Patrick:

    The percent of Black students at Ivies is very, very small. And so that can be a daunting statistic to be walking into. There's so few people that look like me who share my experience. I'm going to have to prove myself at every step of the way.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    HBCUs like Spelman College have seen a surge in interest. In 2014, more than 4,000 people applied. In 2021, that nearly tripled, with more than 11,000 applicants.

    Dr. Helene Gayle took over as the institution's president this summer. An epidemiologist and a leader in public health, she spent her career in government and nonprofit roles. She views what's happening in the admissions office as a reflection of the rapid social change in the country.

  • Dr. Helene Gayle, President, Spelman College:

    This is a generation that grew up with a Black president. They have gone through some of this social unrest following the murder of George Floyd and kind of the movement around Black lives.

    Young people are choosing to be in a place that nurtures them, that recognizes who they are in the world, and really thinks about how they can make this generation of young Black people succeed.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The increasingly competitive student pool comes as no surprise to Rosalind Gates Brewer, a proud Spelman alumna and the chair of the college's Board of Trustees.

  • Rosiland Gates Brewer, CEO, Walgreens Boots Alliance:

    Our talent pools have been very similar to the Yale and Harvard candidates. But Spelman is an absolute deliberate choice.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Before becoming the CEO of the Walgreens Boots Alliance last year that operates some 9,000 drugstores across the U.S., she's also held top positions at Starbucks and Sam's Club.

  • Rosalind Gates Brewer:

    About 10 percent of our class is graduating Phi Beta Kappa.

    Now, you wouldn't see 45 to 50 Black women graduate Phi Beta Kappa from the Harvard or Yale, right? But you get that at Spelman College.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Brewer, a first-generation college graduate, is one of only two Black females running Fortune 500 companies.

  • Rosalind Gates Brewer:

    There is something that I will tell you that is deep in my gut around taking on big challenges. And I'm not afraid of those. And I think I gained that at Spelman College.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While HBCUs account for just 3 percent of post-secondary institutions, they educate about 9 percent of all Black college students and produce about 13 percent of all African American undergraduate degrees.

    Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Women's Research and Resource Center, Spelman College: When historically black colleges were founded, it was clearly a racial justice initiative to attend to the ways in which African Americans cannot attend white colleges and universities.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall has been teaching at Spelman, her alma mater, for more than 50 years.

  • Beverly Guy-Sheftall:

    Many of them, for the first time, they have Black professors. They also see a Black college president, and they hear over and over again that this is a place made for you.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    More than 60 percent of HBCU students are Pell Grant-eligible, and tuitions average about 30 percent lower than predominantly white institutions. HBCUs also enroll more first-generation and academically underprepared students than other four-year schools.

  • Dr. Helene Gayle:

    We punch so well above our weight when we think about what we're able to turn out with less resources than many of our peer majority institutions.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But there are still challenges, with less financial help from state and federal governments historically and far smaller endowments than other schools.

  • Dr. Helene Gayle:

    There's been a bias from the very beginning. And you can look at state institutions that are predominantly Black and state institutions that are white, and there's always been a huge gap. We don't have adequate housing. We don't always have adequate infrastructure, the latest technology.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Federal lawmakers have increased funding for HBCUs, providing nearly $2 billion since 2017, as well as an additional $2.7 billion this year in pandemic emergency relief.

    Alumni and philanthropists have donated more than a billion dollars in recent years funding scholarships and programs in science, technology and other fields. But it's still not enough.

  • Nadrea Njoku, United Negro College Fund:

    There have been lawsuits in states that found that their system underfunded their Black public colleges.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nadrea Njoku heads the United Negro College Fund's Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute Here in Atlanta. She co-authored a recent report calling for more funding.

  • Nadrea Njoku:

    We did a survey of our member institutions, and we found a majority of them have at least $5 million in deferred maintenance. We still need those unrestricted funds to take care of the facilities and upgrade our institutions in the ways that we can continue to retain the students who have increased interest in enrollment.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Better-known HBCUs, like Spelman College, are not in danger. But other institutions, many of them smaller and in rural areas, have not experienced the same recent surge in interest.

  • John Wilson, Former President, Morehouse College:

    About a third of the HBCUs, 30 to 35 of them, were in the red zone, financially precarious. They were tuition-driven. And for an institution to be tuition-driven is like an individual living paycheck to paycheck.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    John Wilson served as the president of Morehouse College and as a White house adviser on historically Black colleges. He's writing a book about HBCUs and says the schools should seize the moment.

  • John Wilson:

    We have seen it come and go in cycles. You go back to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan took office, there was a national climate that was more racially hostile.

    The ideal is for HBCUs to be in charge of their own magnetism, to not be subject to the whims of the marketplace, but to control your own destiny.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    HBCUs also play a broader role in society with a history of propelling Black students into the middle class.

  • Nadrea Njoku:

    Their social mobility status is transformed. They can go from the bottom quintile to middle class because of the tools and skills that they get at these HBCUs. Spelman is an incubator of Black women who go on to STEM careers.

    Guy-Sheftall doesn't see the interest in HBCUs declining.

  • Beverly Guy-Sheftall:

    To the extent that the U.S. remains hostile to people who are different, you need special mission institutions. You need ones that are Hispanic-serving, you need women's colleges, you need tribal colleges, desperately, and you need HBCUs.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Despite all the challenges facing this group of schools, for sophomores Cadence Patrick and Sekai Parker, it came down to something very basic.

  • Cadence Patrick:

    I'm able to look around and feel like the people around me understand me.

  • Sekai Parker:

    It's possible that I can be in a space that is designed specifically for me as a Black woman. But I can also feel like a sense of belonging and never have to question that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And that's a powerful reason, they say, that students will increasingly pick HBCUs.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in Atlanta.

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