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ATLANTA – One of the few black kids in her elementary school in Waterford, Connecticut, Alversia Wade remembers being asked in fourth grade by white classmates if she liked watermelon and fried chicken.
So when it came time to choose a college, she decided to go to a campus where, as she put it, “I would not have to explain myself.”
She decided on Spelman College, where she’s now a freshman, and became part of a wave of black students choosing predominantly black universities over others, at a time of racial division and violence. “Everything happening with police brutality and Black Lives Matter,” Wade said, “pushed me to want an environment where I could talk to other students about all these things.”
Wade was one of 7,868 applicants to the Atlanta college this fall, a record for the 135-year-old institution, said Ingrid W. Hayes, Spelman’s vice president for enrollment management. (Of those, Hayes said, 2,807 were admitted and 532 enrolled.)
Dozens of other HBCUs are also seeing increased interest from black students. Although many schools are still crunching the numbers, about a third of all HBCUs have seen spikes in freshmen enrollment this year, said Marybeth Gasman, higher education professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Some are reversing declines that date to the economic downturn of 2008.
Several observers, including Gasman, primarily attribute the surge in interest to racial tensions on and off college campuses — the “push” of which Wade spoke. But others say the schools themselves deserve at least some of the credit, for making changes in everything from recruiting practices to out-of-state tuition prices.
Schools reporting double-digit bumps in freshmen enrollment include Virginia State, with an increase of about 30 percent; Central State University, one of two HBCUs in Ohio, with a 21 percent increase; and North Carolina’s Shaw University, the South’s oldest HBCU, which went from 402 freshmen last year to 600 this fall — an increase of 49 percent. Louisiana’s Dillard University has seen a 17 percent increase from last year’s total.
The numbers are a welcome boost for HBCUs, many of which have struggled financially and otherwise in recent years. Most of the first HBCUs were founded during Reconstruction so that freed slaves could obtain a higher education; the schools have produced such noteworthy graduates as Martin Luther King Jr. and Oprah Winfrey. But although HBCUs drew 80 percent of all black college-goers four decades ago, that number had been hovering at just over 10 percent, according to a 2013 report by Gasman.
Federal loan and Pell Grant restrictions passed in 2011 didn’t help, putting four-year colleges out of reach for some low-income students.. Unsurprisingly, since the recession, there have been budget cuts and even closings.
Yet now enrollments are on the rise. Different explanations are being offered for the increases. Gasman said she is hearing more than ever before from parents who “don’t want [their children] to deal with what they’re seeing in other places.” Black students, she said, “are feeling they need a place to go that has them in mind.” Such calls and emails from parents usually increase after police shootings, she said.
Gasman also pointed to a Facebook group, “The HBCU vs PWI [predominantly white institution] Great Debate,” where students and parents have expressed similar feelings.
At Spelman, prospective students are mentioning the social climate more often in their application essays, Hayes said. They “have a heightened sense of awareness regarding the social and political conversations that have exploded in the last several years,” and are “coming of age at a time when they’re compelled to speak up.”
Analysts also point to efforts by the schools themselves. HBCUs have been trying new approaches to recruiting and admissions. At Spelman, Hayes said, the school has focused on “arranging a deep pipeline of prospective students, talking to students earlier, with more extensive conversations.”
Officials at Virginia State University and Ohio’s Central State University underlined similar efforts, as well as increased social media activity by VSU’s president and increased contact with high school guidance counselors at CSU. “We weren’t as systematic before,” said Stephanie Krah, CSU’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment management.
Another factor in Ohio: a 76 percent decrease in the surcharge for out-of-state students, Krah said.
Cost has long been seen as a plus for HBCUs. Penn’s Gasman estimates that HBCU tuition rates are 50 percent lower than those of their historically white counterparts; about a third of HBCUs have tuition and fees under $15,000. As more attention is drawn to rising tuition and student debt, these schools may become more appealing, said Melissa Wooten, sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of “In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt.”
Wooten also pointed to what she called a “resurgence of HBCUs in the public conversation,” driven by everything from a Twitter trend last year, #IfHogwartsWasAnHBCU (referring to the Harry Potter school), to “Think HBCU,” a promotional campaign launched this year by Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority with 65,000 active members.
A Gallup poll released last year of black graduates of HBCUs and other colleges also sparked conversation, noted Robert Palmer, a professor in the department of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University. The poll results showed that HBCU graduates were about twice as likely as graduates of other colleges to strongly agree with such statements as, “my professors … cared about me as a person.”
“There’s obviously something happening at a societal level,” Wooten said. “But we shouldn’t downplay what the HBCUs are doing” themselves to increase enrollment.
“There’s both a push and a pull.”