Monday, March 30, 2015

HBCU vs. PWI (Predominantly White Institutions)

HBCU vs. PWI debate misses the real point of higher education

When Olivia Sedwick made the financially-conscious choice to attend a historically black college over Baylor, Marquette, Xavier and Purdue, her decision surprised some she knew.

Olivia Sedwick speaks at the Chancellor's Champagne Brunch at 
Olivia Sedwick speaks at the Chancellor’s Champagne Brunch at Winston-Salem University.
But when Sedwick crept into her first class at Winston-Salem State University to find a black male professor helicoptering over students and spitting wisdom as fast as rapper DMX, she knew she had made the right decision.

“I fell in love with the school,” she says. “We talked about things that I had never had the chance to before coming from a predominantly white high school.”

For Olivia, attending a historically black college meant that she was finally able to explore her identity as a black woman and the sense of double consciousness that comes with it.

The experience has been life-changing.

So, when Black Twitter erupted into a caustic debate about predominantly white institutions (PWI) — schools of higher learning in which whites account for at least 50% enrollment — and historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) — post-secondary schools that were established and accredited before 1964 and whose principal mission was and is the education of African-Americans — Sedwick was unnerved.

She says the perceived academic inferiority of HBCUs in comparison to PWIs bothered her most.

Devin Sangster, a senior at Tennessee State University, agrees.

“I feel that my hard work and dedication to my academics is discredited by the assumption that my education is inferior to those that attend a PWI. It bothers me that this debate happens within our own community at all, because we fail to see the bigger picture,” Sangster says.

The bigger picture, he says, is the overall advancement of African-Americans.

I think people only discredit HBCUs because of how people view blackness. So, when you speak of black institutions, people kind of turn their nose up. People automatically elevate PWIs because they’re white colleges and there’s this idea that a majority-white school is quality

While HBCUs constitute just 3% of the nation’s institutions of higher learning, they graduate nearly 20% of black students who earn undergraduate degrees. And more than 50% of African American professionals and public school teachers matriculate from HBCUs.

In addition, approximately 20% of black students earn science and engineering bachelor’s degrees at HBCUs according to the National Science Foundation.

The report also highlights HBCUs as “important baccalaureate-origin institutions of future black science and engineering doctorate recipients, especially outside the social sciences.”

Still, the stigma that HBCUs are less rigorous and garner fewer post-graduate job opportunities persists. But why?

Nakia Williams, a senior at Indiana University-Bloomington, says that the recalibration of whiteness as the standard for success plays a profound role.

Nakia Williams, Ebony Holmes, Shayla Hill 
Nakia Williams, Ebony Holmes, Shayla Hill at Indiana University Bloomington.
“I think people only discredit HBCUs because of how people view blackness. So, when you speak of black institutions, people kind of turn their nose up. People automatically elevate PWIs because they’re white colleges and there’s this idea that a majority-white school is quality,” Williams says.

Williams, however, argues that institutions should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

In response to the question of why African-American students decide not to attend a HBCU, some PWI students point to name recognition — as well as the deficit of resources at such schools.

“I feel like you can pretty much go to every HBCU campus and you can say ‘UNC Chapel Hill,’ ‘Duke’ or ‘Yale’ and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about,” says Joey Blake, a senior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“However — and I’ve definitely ran across this at UNC — talk to white students about different HBCUs and they won’t have any idea what you’re talking about. I feel like being on a PWI campus, as a black student, you kind of have that mindset ingrained to some degree. I think it does affect your perception of HBCUs from then on,” he says.

“If the endowments of all 105 HBCUs were added up, they’d still amount to less than 10% of Harvard University’s endowment, which at upward of $30 billion is the wealthiest of any college in the world.”

Beyond branding, UNC senior Matthew Taylor thinks additional hardships faced by HBCUs, including institutionalized racism, which manifests in things such as discriminatory public funding and a dearth of white benefactors, come into play.

“These systemic barriers have hindered HBCUs. General wealth is something that they just haven’t had,” Taylor says.

In an unsettling illustration of Taylor’s point, Essence published an article citing the gross imbalance in endowments between HBCUs and PWIs:

“If the endowments of all 105 HBCUs were added up, they’d still amount to less than 10% of Harvard University’s endowment, which at upward of $30 billion is the wealthiest of any college in the world.”

What HBCUs lack in economic resources, however, they often make up for in strong faculty support.

Theophilus Woodley, Dustin Pickett, David Butler at 
Theophilus Woodley, Dustin Pickett, David Butler at Winston-Salem University graduation.
Dustin Pickett, a Winston-Salem State University alumnus and first-year graduate student at Duke University, said that the administrative culture was definitely more supportive at his HBCU than his PWI.

“At Duke, there’s this presumption that, if you’re there, then you should be able to figure things out on your own. Whereas, at Winston — I mean, most people came from the same high schools as these kids, I myself came from an IB school — but I was still given that care, I was still given that special attention that I needed, there was still that family culture.”

Khyran Shank, a senior who transferred from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, agrees that it’s easier to make connections with professors on HBCU campuses.

“It’s definitely a more loving environment. At an HBCU, you get a great connection with your professors,” Shank says.

Shank and Pickett also agreed that there is a general sense of affinity between black students at HBCUs that is not necessarily as prominent on PWI campuses.

So, what made these men both go on to PWIs?

They say they wanted to be well-rounded.

Both institutions offer something different for students. In the same way that attending a PWI does not negate a students’ blackness, attending an HBCU does not negate his or her future potential.

“Whether you go to an HBCU or whether you go to a PWI, as long as you’re making it, as long as you’re going out and making an impact in your community, I don’t think it really matters,” Pickett says.

“I think we need to get to a point where we can move past the conversation of which is better and know that we’re all just trying to better ourselves.”

Jaleesa Jones is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Your typical underachiever, Jaleesa is working towards a degree in communication studies with a concentration in media studies and production as well as minors in journalism and screenwriting. She is the current President and Campus Correspondent for Her Campus UNC, a branch of, the number one online community for college women. She is also an arts reporter for the Daily Tar Heel and a member of the Carolina Association of Future Magazine Editors. In her spare time, she enjoys listening to spoken word poetry, binge-watching Law & Order: SVU and debating everything from respectability politics to celebrity news. You can follow her random outbursts on Twitter @newLEESonlife.
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1 comment:

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