At most colleges across the country, white students outnumber people of color. At historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs), though, white students find themselves in a somewhat rare position: They’re the minority.
Because of this, white students may wonder what life would be like at an HBCU.
Yes, of course. HBCUs have never discriminated against any race. White students have always been welcome — as have those of other races and ethnicities. HBCUs exist because, historically, black students were not allowed to take classes at predominantly white institutions (PWIs).
Second, white students tend to have great experiences at HBCUs. Don’t take my word for it; the evidence confirms it. An insightful interview by professor Marybeth Gasman, University of Pennsylvania and white HBCU graduate and scholar Rob Shorette provides firsthand credence to this claim. Rob is quite candid about his experiences.
And it’s not just this single interview. I’ve conducted original research that documents white students’ positive experiences at HBCUs. Together with my colleagues Robert T. Palmer and Dina C. Maramba, I’ve interviewed many white graduates from HBCUs whose accounts will form the basis of a study to appear in a 2016 issue of the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice. Currently, we are writing a second study with a new set of interviews, which will be submitted to another journal.
According to The Century Foundation, black students constitute about three-quarters of the student body at the nation's 99 HBCUs. Of the remaining students, 11 percent are white, 8 percent are Latinx, and 2 percent are American Indian, Asian, Native Hawaiian, or multi-race.
If you are a white student considering attending an HBCU—and this includes freshmen as well as students attending as transfers—here's what you need to know about your upcoming college experience. According to our research, white students enrolled at historically black colleges and universities can expect four specific opportunities as they earn educate themselves at an HBCU school:
If you decide to attend an HBCU as a white student, you will have full freedom to participate in all aspects of college life. From being named a student government leader, valedictorian, homecoming king or queen, a fraternity or sorority member, or a member of an athletic team, nothing is off limits. White students we interviewed filled all of these roles.
Many white students reported positive faculty relationships, across liberal arts colleges and universities. In fact, they said faculty and professors often reached out proactively. All students enrolled at HBCUs need to seek out instructors when in need of assistance, but our research suggests that HBCU faculty tend to demonstrate care, concern, and availability that makes the process of getting help much less daunting than at many other universities.
One of the most exciting findings from our research is that white students enrolled at a historically black college or university reported broadened racial perspectives. Specifically, they developed a more complex understanding of race and ethnicity because they learned about the diversity within the majority black student body.
It’s easy for one group to assume that the characteristics of another set of people are the same. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I’m a Republican, country music lover, or nature lover. Actually, I do love running long distances on trails and in the mountains, but I also love the indoors! Moreover, neither Republican politics nor country music is to my taste. You’d have to get to know me if you want to know me.
The same goes for black HBCU peers. Politics, religion, economic and academic background, gender and sexuality, preferences for entertainment, sports, food, and so forth, are as diverse in the black community as they are among whites. Spending four years at an HBCU will afford you the chance to experience the unifying aspects of “black culture," while also introducing you to the wonderful mosaic of black individuals. You’ll be changed into a wiser person as a result of this broadened perspective.
Alumni of HBCUs are known to be proud of their alma mater. Institutional pride is one of those unwritten, undocumented traditions that simply define many HBCU graduates. The white students we interviewed felt the same way.
You can go to college anywhere — but what you may have trouble envisioning now is how good your broad experiences, deep relationships, and enduring pride will feel after graduation.
There are many resources available online to help you make your decision about attending an HBCU, including:
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